In my last blog, which was a slightly angry rant, I looked at the (often negative) impact of change over time in my education career. In this post, I want to explore some of the background to the changes and perhaps consider why successive Governments often go wide of the mark and decisions have unintended consequences.
There are issues in education and always have been. Many of these are as a result of geography or demography. Some will be cultural; inside and outside the schools, terms of local and national expectations.
Managing education is a substantial project, across a variety of levels, Government, region and locality. But there are, essentially, four elements across which to make decisions; space, personnel, resources and time. At a macro level, this is school places; currently in dispute, as “free schools” are the only route; teacher provision, again an area of dispute, with a shortfall forecast over the next ten years.
Management and leadership rely on a range of skills, including analytical, organisational and evaluative. If the analysis of the problem is inaccurate, then subsequent actions are likely to be awry, with projects falling. After 40+ years of direct experience in education, I would suggest that at a Government level this has fallen down over the past twenty years, as education has become higher profile as an “area for improvement”, leading to global, top down leadership and, for many, significant distraction, stress and, in some cases, a backward momentum.
It is a truism that some schools perform better than others; always have and probably always will. This can be down to geography, demographic or the luck to appoint exactly the right staff at the right time and in the right specialisms, to create the team that embeds a school culture that endures through small changes, as personnel move on. Others struggle to appoint, so cannot firmly embed a “tribal culture”, ensuring that there is a constant adjustment in approach.
To me, introducing the National Strategies in 1997 was a significant low, in that, despite knowing that our school was achieving above expectations, very able staff began to question their abilities and their approaches. The constant political rhetoric became a distraction from the particular needs of the children. I know that prescribed (suggested) approaches, especially to reading, ie guided reading groups, for many was a backward step, losing the close relationship that teachers had with their knowledge of literature and reader challenge and progress.
It is the prescriptive (proscriptive) nature of national initiatives that divert local schools from providing high quality provision. Where, in my early career, there was the School Council, amongst others, which would regularly share “good practice” for reflection, today we get direction, but up to a point. I’ll discuss current issues at the end of the blog.
The college of teachers that is the hallmark of a good school’s staffroom, is the engine room of thinking that provides the basis for development, often adapting ideas to local circumstance, space, time, resources and personnel. They need permission to think, as well as time and space to think and build, to stop being reactive to initiatives. A reactive workforce stops thinking for themselves, so the situation becomes debilitating.
It is the local school’s job to make education work for each child in their care. This might require adaptation; they are best placed to effect this.
Essentially, education is a people-based system, with 80%+ of any school budget being spent on staffing costs, largely front-line teachers. There is a need for personnel, with a varied expertise base, to cover the wide range of roles that exist in a modern school. At classroom level there is a particular number of teachers needed to teach classes, provide cover, support and additional expertise. The number of roles in schools has multiplied over the years, often with non-teaching staff, specialist and non-specialist, outnumbering the teachers. This often leads to several layers of management, culminating in the classteacher as a team leader of a small group of adults.
Problem; if you can’t get the people, your system can be put under strain. Teacher supply is a national issue, with localised problems, with university ITE, School Direct, Teach First among a range of entry arrangements.
Assistant roles can also suffer, especially if there is a need for some specialist skills to support a specific need. To appoint, then train, can cause a delay in providing quality support.
Problem; High quality communication across such a complex system is essential, to ensure that everyone is enabled to operate at peak productivity. This is often an area that is left until issues arise, so reactive approaches and last minute information become the norm.
Problem; school Governing bodies are now judged as part of the leadership and management of the school. There may be local difficulty in finding the range of skills needed to perform the range of functions needed.
School administration relies on a number of knowledgeable staff. Some schools have a business manager, others will have an administrative officer, or some other title, in charge of the office processes. With school budgets covering significant amounts of money, and with many schools also covering personnel functions, the room for issues arising grows greater.
Problem; As the head of a one form entry Primary, I recall a period when my admin officer had to take a month off. This gap was sudden, so, being a part of the LA scheme, I was able to find some temporary specialist cover. This luxury may not be available within a more fragmented system, with many isolated schools.
Schools need resources. As a member of the Local Authority, we had the luxury of a centralised purchasing system that ensured that the basic requirements of the school, as far as paper and pencils were easily met on a short term basis, so we didn’t need a huge store cupboard throughout the year. There were also schemes that enabled group purchase of larger items, such as ICT equipment. This system at the specialist end could be compromised by schools “doing their own thing”, but with education spending being so high, local suppliers often compete with the central system to provide better deals.
Problem; At its simplest, schools needs systems that ensure the right resources are available in the right place at the right time. The information system that underpins decisions needs to be clear to everyone, over an appropriate timescale, so that resources are available on time.
Curriculum provision is currently determined more and more from the centre, at every level, from 3-18. The rationale is to provide the best to every child, but the reality is that each setting operates under local conditions, with all the above issues impacting, from the appointment of heads and deputies through all other staffing categories to the quality of the available built and natural school environment, then the provision of resources, and so on. Curriculum provision can be compromised at many levels.
Local decisions, by schools, to take in children who may have disturbed education backgrounds, an influx of groups such as immigrant or traveller children, can lead to local difficulty in judged outcomes, as has bene recently exemplified by @Oldprimaryhead1 in his blogs.
System assessment. At the inspection level, schools can be found to be in need of improvement, as a result of any of the issues discussed above. The audit judgement may be correct, as far as the system is concerned, but, unless there is clarity about the contextual issues, the organisation can be set up to fail, should they not be able to address key issues; if teachers are not available to you, you can’t appoint them. Ofsted is an expensive audit system. It needs to have a direct role in school development and improvement. Audit can lead to advice in my opinion, without compromising the validity of the judgement. School financial audits lead to advice.
And assessment in general. It has been interesting over the past couple of years to see the emergence of assessment as a major issue in schools, largely due to the decision, by the Government, to abandon the national levels system that had been around since 1987. This enabled a year based National Curriculum to be put in place, with the decision that all schools should decide their own systems for determining and describing progress between the national test periods, at 4, 7 and 11 in Primaries.
It has become such a complex area that I can only refer to an excellent blog by @MichaelTidd who recently compared the expectation of children aged 11 with a reasonable pass at GCSE. Assessment within the year based curriculum, will, in my opinion, lead to inertia for many learners, as schools seek to ensure that whole cohorts “master” concepts before they can move on. Unless teachers get to be really creative in developing what are being called “deeper challenges”, being able will become a millstone.
Children need reassurance about what the teacher thinks that they can do and have an idea of what they are seeking to achieve next.
Children are individuals. They need to see learning as their personal journey; that they are the key stakeholder, so that they can see the point of effort. When all is said and done, everything that any school aspires to is getting the best out of each child. The system should support, not hinder this.
I am beginning to consider that the squeeze applied by the Government may be getting in the way, yet they bear overall responsibility…