I was recently invited to participate in an education round table with Carrie Lam (CEO Hong Kong) and Nick Gibb (Minister for Schools) - this is an approximation of my brief contribution
How has increased autonomy affected standards in English primary schools?
Too early to tell without cherry picking data.
· H1: Intransigence and resistance in education sector
· H2: Entirely predictable increase in noise and waste following fragmentation
· And to choose either would be a political decision unsupported by evidence
How do we address teacher empowerment and support social mobility & inclusion?
· Too much focus on school leaders and CEOs simply because easiest to measure; which says more about our need for scapegoats than our appetite to improve outcomes for children. As Michael Bichard used to say, "Many people follow leaders merely out of curiosity".
I’d like to offer three recommendations and one observation
1. Be careful with language... it creates a world we all have to live in
Deficit models are easy to sell politically because fear wins more votes. But I suspect we may have broken the psychological contract with teachers by careless language. We should probably also stop using the word ‘autonomy’ – which often means lack of governance – and replace it with ‘agency’. We need to make teachers and school leaders feel more valued and included and able to make changes within parameters. This doesn’t mean they need to be given the power to crash the bus
2. Start with the evidence not the policy and then have the courage to see it through
Too many of our current problems were entirely predictable 10 years ago if more time had been taken to work through consequences of policy and many others have come from a lack of courage implementing the change
3. Don’t spend your improvement money on the transactional costs of change
Expensive leadership changes often absorb all the budget without actually changing anything in delivery.
In classrooms, we need one skill in our teachers above all: the ability to spot when learning is happening. When it is happening to nurture it without smothering and when it isn’t to STOP AND REFLECT on WHY, rather than simply ploughing on...
This ability to spot what isn’t working and make informed changes is nuanced and complex and is always better when it is kept close to the children. It is also still beyond the reach of computers despite the huge advances made in AI.
My first boss always said, “You can have something good, you can have something soon or you can have something cheap”. We currently fund primary schools at £18 per child per day. So the improvements we all want are not going to come quickly. Mindful of my first piece of advice we also need to recognise that in complicated and complex systems there is no such thing as best practice, there is only better practice and emerging practice. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either selling you something (politically or commercially) or dangerous.
The organisation I run is at its simplest a bet on the professionalism of teachers and school leaders. If we invest in them, keep expertise, money and decision making as close to children as possible and manage risks as they change; we will outperform any command and control model in the long run.