When Michael Gove had the baton of the education portfolio wrenched from his reluctant hands last year, I had some optimism that his successor, Mrs Nicky Morgan, would be more than Gove-lite. The new Secretary of State for Education has certainly made emollient noises about teachers and has even invited the teaching profession to share their concerns about workload. So I was somewhat dismayed when our Secretary of State whipped off her benign mask and showed her true colours. In an interview with the Sunday Times Nicky Morgan proclaimed: “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel.” And how will she ensure this is achieved?
“The new tests for 11-year-olds we are introducing next year will be strengthened to ensure that every young person is meeting the mark.” Not so much Gove-lite but pure unadulterated Gove with the threat of dismissal for Heads who fail to ensure their pupils come up to the mark.
Where does one begin to respond to a Secretary of State who announces policy cloaked in threats? Accountability has become so much part of education that there is some perverted logic to extending it to sacking a Head Teacher for failing to “meet the mark” set by the Secretary of State for Education. After all in the push for academies there has already been collateral damage with Head Teachers’ careers coming to an abrupt end – all in the name of standards.
How utterly dismal and depressing it is that hard-working professionals can be viewed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the undulating waters of education policy. We have come a long way if a Head Teacher’s raison d’être is purely results with no regard for the broader educational imperative facing our young learners who are growing up in a world of exponential change. Of course youngsters need to learn the basics but if testing of basics to ensure children “come up to the mark” becomes the school’s major focus (because otherwise the Head Teacher will be presented with a P45), how far can a school’s function be truly educational?
Only recently the Department of Education published league tables which presented an extraordinary examination scenario where my school (where 93% of GCSE grades were A*/A last year), was awarded ‘0’ in the table because we offered a mix of GCSEs and IGCSEs. And we were not alone. We had examination league tables which were demonstrably cast straight from “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with high performing schools propping up the bottom of the table. Fortunately for me my job is not on the line. As an independent school we have the educational luxury of choosing the best qualification for our learners – we are not regulated by the latest diktat about league tables. Yet I am acutely conscious that this brutalist approach to measuring our schools is the iron-hand weighing on the shoulders of our school leaders across the country. Of course there are schools that can do better – indeed all schools should believe this is the case. Yet the battle-lines (and I use this term advisedly) which have been carved between the government and educators, means that the education of our young people, which is the most rewarding of challenges, has become a war of attrition, as evidenced by Mrs Morgan’s most recent announcement.
Most tragic of all, to me, is the underlying assumption presented by the Secretary of State for Education that Head Teachers and teaching staff don’t really care enough about how the children in their schools’ progress and it takes the cracking of a whip by Mrs Morgan to ensure each child performs. How sad that we have come to this.
I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.
As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.
The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.
And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.
My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.
Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.
My first inkling that something was afoot at the Department for Education came with the Sky News report early in the morning that Michael Gove had arrived at Downing Street to meet with the Prime Minister. Was he about to be re-shuffled by David Cameron? It hardly seemed possible. Only last week I was in the audience for the Education Summit 2014 where Gove delivered a characteristically ideological key-note speech. No sense then that his personal mission to transform education would be de-railed by a government re-shuffle. And then the news exploded on Twitter. Gove had gone. The bogey-man of so many teachers and more generally the “blob” was out, finessed into the office of Chief Whip. The Education Secretary was rather like the Monty Python parrot in political terms.
So what does this mean? Gove’s departure is momentous in one sense but actually how much will it change the policies so closely associated with him? The Pandora’s Box opened by Gove is his legacy to this country – autonomy for schools, qualification reform and reform of teacher training. I list these changes rather than offer a value judgement because that goes to the heart of Gove’s reform of education. Were these reforms necessary to ensure this country continued to compete with the rest of the world or did they unleash a decade of instability and uncertainty where young people and teachers are the collateral damage?
History will judge. For now the momentum behind the Goveian Reforms means that government will continue on tram lines. The unknown is how linear the reforms will be without the force of Gove’s personality behind them. So in the hope that the new Secretary of State is open to ideas, I should like to take the liberty of sharing some of mine:
1. Let’s embrace the century we live in and, rather than harking back to a golden age of
education, ensure our young people are educated for their tomorrow;
2. Stop using data designed to assess individual pupils to measure schools;
3. Engage with digital learning to ensure we offer the best possible learning experience;
4. Work with teachers – they are the instruments of change.
The new Secretary of State, Ms Nicky Morgan, already has her work cut out because she holds her cabinet position alongside her role as Minister for Women and Inequalities. I would have thought the Education brief was big enough yet I wish Ms Morgan well. Nothing matters more than the education of our young people. I really do hope that Ms Morgan rises to the challenge of her new demanding role – certainly just holding the fort between now and the General Election will be a betrayal of a generation of young people.
Gove may be gone but the debate about the course of education goes on. It is worth reminding ourselves why education is so important and why Ms Morgan’s new role is so important. Nelson Mandela expressed this so well:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Leadership is a term bandied around a great deal – usually because we are bemoaning a dearth of true leaders in our national life. Yet leadership is not just about the macrocosm. It is also about the microcosm of our everyday lives. A school community is just such a microcosm. Traditionally leadership as a concept in a school is wrapped around the figure of the Head Teacher. The Michael Wilshaw approach as a Head illustrates the strong decisive leader very well. Top down and hierarchical. I would like to share an alternative model of leadership which has evolved out of our school’s strategic plan.
When I joined my school in 2001 it was a traditional girls’ school. I was at the top of the pyramid as Head supported by deputies and, rather than any sense of embedded leadership, the concept of “primus inter pares” prevailed amongst my middle management colleagues. If we fast forward to 2014, following a series of strategic decisions, the notion of leadership is no longer associated with the iconic Head role. With six schools in the Stephen Perse Foundation (formally the Perse School for Girls) with two schools outside of Cambridge, the challenge is how do we ensure this group of schools retain an identity as Foundation schools? How do we ensure leadership is embedded across our Foundation?
What I have learnt is that trust is critical to empowering colleagues who have the responsibility of either running each school or who have Foundation-wide responsibility. This is not blind faith. Working closely with a colleague offers an insight into how they operate and I see my role as supporting, advising and facilitating yet ultimately allowing colleagues the space to lead.
I have also learnt the value of teams working together in what can be most accurately described as an entrepreneurial way. Some of our most creative sessions as a senior team have been when ideas have been tossed around, tossed out and resurrected in a different form – offering the best solution for a specific issue. The idea is not owned, it is shared. Hierarchy is subverted to empower everyone to engage without fear or favour. And once agreed everyone keenly supports the outcome and acts as advocates. Nivarna? No. This approach encourages honest discussion and views expressed can be disruptive and challenging. Yet the space to have such exchanges ensures that judgement is about the quality of the idea and not the potential irritation of someone challenging an accepted judgement.
Yet it goes without saying that leadership is not the preserve of the senior team. Subject leaders, as the Director of Music told me only recently, enjoy not being micromanaged. He and his colleagues share our vision for learning and enjoy being treated as professionals who are trusted to deliver the curriculum.
And perhaps that is the point I wish to make. In an age where challenging a teacher’s judgement has become part of political point scoring, how can we expect teachers to act as leaders when we don’t trust their professional judgement? Let us not forget, it takes confidence to offer effective leadership and self-belief to work within a team. I have personally witnessed the transformation of a culture where my role only works within the framework of a team. A transformation based on trust.