This is something you’ll hear a lot in the coming days. The incoming Secretary of State for Education is not a teacher, nor has she (to my knowledge) worked in a school in any meaningful educational capacity. I’m not saying this to suggest it’s unusual or even a problem (though it may have been better had she that experience). I mention it just as a precursor to the point I want to make.
Thing is, there are a few problems for the DfE to sort out. I don’t mean “where are we going to put all these new university and college bods” type problems, I’m talking about problems in schools. Let’s list a few of the irons currently in the fire:
- An additional 750,000 school places required by 2025.
- Schools facing financial meltdown (not an exaggeration).
- A recruitment and retention crisis.
- An ITT system in a bit of a mess.
- An incoherent assessment and accountability system which lacks comparability with the past – in plain English, for a number of years to come you literally won’t know if the system is improving.
- An incoherent system of school governance – the transition from an LA-based system to a school-led system has stalled.
- An organisation charged with the financial management of the system which is not equipped to cope with the challenges it faces.
- A core confusion over the implications for the system of autonomy.
Now, the more observant among you will notice something. None of these are education issues. Of course, the input of education professionals will help to solve them. And it is true that left to themselves it is likely that education professionals could solve many of these problems on their own without external input.
But the point I’m making is this. None of these issues I’ve highlighted above relies on educational capability to solve them. They are issues of competence. The barrier to solving many of these problems thus far has, in my view been threefold:
- Firstly the issue of ideology has caused difficulties. Too often the approach taken hasn’t been “How can we solve this problem?” but “How can we solve this problem within the free market paradigm we have set ourselves?”
- Secondly, and this is connected to the first issue, there has been an unwillingness to listen to experts in the sector. Critical to the success of any project is the acceptance of challenge and the recognition that integrating it into the solution strengthens and not weakens the outcome.
- Finally there is the most difficult issue, for everyone, that of honesty. There has been a distinct lack of it. Now I’m not completely stupid so I understand the need for politicians to make their case for change in a positive way. But, simply put, too many lies have been told over the past few years. About money, about academies, about progress.
So how do we move forward? I have three pieces of advice for the new Secretary of State.:
Firstly, just tell the truth. For example, in an ideal world schools would like more money. But if there isn’t going to be any then say so. But don’t tell everyone else there is more money (or the same). Explain the consequences – that there will be fewer adults in the school as a result or children will be in larger groups, or they will have less resources. Accept that less resource leads to different outcomes and work with schools to mitigate this.
Secondly, don’t be ideological. We don’t need you to be announcing anything new right now. Look, all that stuff’s been done. There are irreversible changes in the system. Lots of people don’t like them, but even more don’t like the chaos of living in a half-finished house. You don’t need to be ideological. You just need to fix the roof because everyone is getting wet.
Which nicely leads on to the final and the most important advice. Be competent. Take advice, develop a plan. Implement it. Finish a few things. It’s project management 101. You have a department with some highly competent people in it.
Let them be competent.