I always found it hard to take beach holidays, as it is very hard for me to sit or lie still on a beach. I much prefer to go rock pooling, swimming, or some other activity. Years of camping from around 1980, combined with a folk music link, ensured that the sedentary holiday didn’t become a reality.
Friends, moving to the Limousin region of France in 1991, offered the possibility of camping holidays there as well as continuing with music. In 1994, my first wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. This prompted us to create a life project and to buy a small house in the area. It was the price of a modest touring caravan, but essentially consisted of four walls, a roof and a cold tap. We camped in the house for a few years, while a few improvements were effected.
The pleasure of DIY ensured a complete break from the rigours of everyday school, and especially during the summer holidays, there was a point where I was aware that I had experienced a moment of peace. That usually preceded a bright idea that addressed a gritty problem that had previously defeated me. I solved a particular issue while strimming an area of very long grass.
I’ve kept the house and enjoy trips to tidy the garden, to maintain the fabric or to indulge in a little time just to stop and think. The need to cut large trees has been an overriding need for the past couple of years; chestnuts and hazels to coppice, and this time a 25 metre silver birch. It does somewhat concentrate the mind to take down a large tree safely.
At this point, readers may well be humming the “Lumberjack Song” from Monty Python.
Self-improvement was a theme that went through my mind during the trip, not least because just before the Easter holidays, I was invited to the National Education Trust annual Lecture from Dame Sally Coates, at which the NET also launched their book, edited by Roy Blatchford and Rebecca Clark, Self-Improving Schools; the journey to excellence. I took this to reread, after doing so before the trip. It was an interesting publication, in that it could be read as a prospectus for mass academisation, as has become the Government approach. In each of the first two sections there were pieces that offered a slightly different alternative view, but the stronger voices seemed to take the view that we might as well get used to the idea, as it’s time had come.
Terms such as “school led”, self-improving”, “gale and hurricane”, “leadership”, “futures”, seemed at times to rely on political rhetoric and exhortation.
There is a big question of whether the system, at every level, is really ready for the impending changes? If every school is to become an academy by 2022, as per the Government agenda, then the anticipated changes need to be planned in such a way that continuity and progression are maintained. However, I would argue that the systems around the central school system are not yet well thought through.
The five years from 2010 to 2015 saw an earthquake of significant force in education, leaving the debris (still) to be cleaned up, and in 2016, I’d say that there is still plenty to be done to rectify, or even to embed fully, the earlier changes. Just note the number of Government “clarifications” and late exemplification for the 2016 SATs.
To mention a few; Curriculum and (a national scheme of) Assessment, Examinations 4-18, Teacher training (multiple routes), school places, academisation following Ofsted judgement, free schools, school finance…
All the above are in the hands of the Government, whose response, every time there is criticism, is to deliver the “We’re doing very well, thank you” homily, even if the evidence might suggest an alternative interpretation. That so much has not yet bedded in does not prepare the ground for the mass academisation that is envisaged, over the next six years. Why do it anyway?
An analysis of the main problem would suggest that there is a proportion of schools which, despite help given and guidance from Ofsted and outside agencies, seem less than able to make progress to deliver a good or better outcome for children.
At the same time, there are schools in areas of deprivation that succeed at a high level. The project to link high achievers with low achievers through Multi-academy Trusts (MATs) is the preferred solution, but for every school in the country. To do so will not necessarily address the issue of the underperforming school, as the energies being directed to academisation on that scale will divert time, effort and finances to the bigger project. It is not clear to me that this will go any way to addressing more pressing issues. Just parachuting in some staff will not provide the basis for long term change and stability.
Teacher recruitment and retention, CPD, preparation for promotion and leadership roles need to be addressed, if schools are to have a full complement of teachers of sufficient knowledge, skill and energy to sustain and further develop the system, let alone work through change. Changing a system requires time and energy, to consider and plan for futures while maintaining a continuous high quality product. Change in education is a cerebral as well as a practical project. It might need some quality time out, not just for management level people, or the MAT management or Trustees, who can only achieve through the focused efforts of others.
ITE changes can appear to be less than well-coordinated. Bulk, high-quality (Ofsted checked) teacher training has long been the remit of university departments. This has been supplemented through other routes, such as School Direct, Teach First, Accreditation Only and Troops to Teachers. While these are growing in number, they have not yet matched the need of the whole system, which potentially embeds a potential weakness over time. A local example would be a School Direct provider, whose schools requested 18 trainees, but were only allowed to recruit 10 to the 16-17 cohort. Not a good balance of supply and demand.
University departments train students for multiple placements, necessarily working at a more general level. Where trainees are being trained by and for a specific school, it is possible that their ability to move to another, with potentially very different approaches might become more challenging.
Schools need teachers. Some areas fail to recruit simply because of house prices or rental costs. Having stayed in the same area for 40 years, I know that my first house, bought at 4 times a starting teacher salary and a small deposit, would now require 8 times a starter salary and a large deposit. That, combined with student loan debts, will have an impact.
· Housing is an issue to be resolved, if stability in staffing is to be developed.
· Staffing stability is needed for development, embedding, evaluation, refining and security. Across the Primary curriculum, the generalist nature of the broad curriculum requires general, high quality training to raise everyone to a good standard. Change, especially large scale change, puts development in jeopardy, as all the good work can be undone very rapidly.
· Curriculum change and assessment, as wrought under the current system, requires significant stability of staffing, if high quality teacher judgement, through moderation, is to be established. Change takes away the continuity of discussion and decision making.
· Local needs need to be addressed, in Initial Teacher Training and CPD, as well as recruitment, to maintain supply over time. There are areas that are poorly served by training providers. However, aspects of CPD can be in the hands of local groups of schools, if there is a willingness to cooperate.
· Relationships with LA broader provision, such as SEN, Child Protection, Health and Safety, Library services, need to be considered. A MAT is, after all, a new “business”.
Economies of scale might need to be considered, earlier, rather than later. Stuff happens in a school; the roof blows off, a teacher goes on long term sickness, an accident or an issue relating to a child. All three of these examples can result in significant costs falling onto “someone”. Under the LA system, if the roof blows off, there is a building organisation that ensures a reasonably rapid addressing of the issue. The sick teacher cost is picked up by the LA after 20 days absence and the child issue, which might require legal advice, currently is at a relatively low unit cost, as an insurance.
Having worked and lived in Hampshire for my whole career, I am concerned that a good authority (there will be areas of weakness), is threatened with dismemberment under the Government proposals. Unless it can become a Multi-Academy Trust in it’s own right, it could become 20+ MATs, with 20 schools each. These MATs will each have a CEO and back office, potentially equal to the existing LA, so central costs will rise. There is no requirement to maintain current Governance arrangements, nor to provide training should Governors be retained. Hampshire still has a dedicated Governor Services system. MATs would have to buy into any centralised services. Where some schools are already academies and buy back services, these are at a higher cost than to LA schools, as it is a business arrangement. Does anyone seriously believe that non-teaching costs will be (significantly) lower?
I can’t yet see how this move to mass-academisation is in the best interests of the system, as a whole.
It suggests a lack of ideas or will to address the real issues affecting schools. It will be at best a distraction from the real purpose of school, and at worst will decimate the system of public education for a long time.
If you are in a MAT, started or lead a MAT, you might have a different view and I am happy to accept that I have a LA view, as a long career teacher and Governor.
And I like working with trees and looking at the view from my (French) front garden!
I'd rather the over-riding consideration was sustainability, across the whole system. Self-improvement can become selfish, rather than altruistic.