Government needs to give up the backseat driving

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29 June 2015 by Mark Wright
Politicians and practitioners ideally work together to take education on a shared journey so it doesn’t bode well that the two have significantly different views on the start point and what’s required to make it a successful trip.

Education leadership is a delicate mix of art and science. The science ought to be the easy part: assembling the data and being able to discern a realistic answer to ‘where are we now?’, before plotting a route towards the envisaged destination. Difficulties occur where there is no agreement between politicians and practitioners about that start point, never mind the destination or the route map between the two. The mistake is to think that vision only relates to the future but in reality good vision is also needed to be clear on where your starting point is.  In other words, there is a lack of the art of educational leadership in the form of a shared vision, collaboration and communication.

The government goals ─ for higher standards, better behaviour, improved leadership and management, higher attainment, increased pupil progress, a narrowed gap ─ are worthy goals and many in education would agree with them.  However, there is considerably less consensus about the government’s chosen route map to reach these goals.  Westminster has set its sights on the leaders of ‘coasting’ schools, intending to force more schools to become academies and to open 500 new free schools.  At a time of austerity it will spend billions on the structures of education rather than on what we know really drives progress towards the agreed destination – great leaders and teachers.

Currently there is little or no evidence that academies and free schools are a positive force for change (see the cross-party Education Select Committee report on academies and free schools).  We are yet to see the evidence behind Nicky Morgan’s assertion that free schools are the ‘modern engines of social justice’.  It is simply too early to tell whether this structural answer has been successful.  And whilst the government espouses the freedoms and flexibilities for leaders to lead, the reality is a testing and accountability system which in effect makes the government the system’s backseat driver. This is further emphasised by the government’s insistence that all pupils must study the Ebacc subjects, despite the views of many school leaders that this is not in the best interests of all pupils. As for the coasting schools, where are the replacements for their leaders when all the evidence from members indicates we are heading for a prolonged recruitment and retention crisis in teaching and leadership roles?

This demonstrates that the real problem for this journey is the apparently huge gulf in perception of where education is at now. The government’s route map ignores the fact that the variation in performance of schools is much greater within schools than it is between them.  And the reality for the profession is teacher shortages, a rise in pupil numbers, a reluctance to apply for senior roles, continuous curriculum and assessment changes, a battle to raise progress and attainment when parents aren’t on board, changes to accountability measures and ensuring young people aren’t radicalised,  all within the harsh reality of reduced funding.  This disparity of perception is akin to a school leader ignoring the realities on the ground as experienced by his or her frontline managers and teaching staff.  Similarly, Westminster is calling the shots without due regard for the journey conditions experienced by school leaders, managers and teachers who are nevertheless tasked with delivering miracles over the next five years.

Until politicians and practitioners start talking and negotiate a workable route together, there is a real danger that the faltering engine of education blows a gasket and lets down a generation of learners.  The government therefore needs to seriously engage with the whole profession to secure its education goals rather than distance itself because it doesn’t like what it hears about the reality. Or perhaps the government is working to a different agenda that it isn’t sharing – privatisation anyone? On current form, however, it appears likely they will press on with back seat driving and be ready to blame the profession when education ‘underperforms’ due to poor navigation and lack of servicing!

By Mark Wright is the assistant director of AMiE (leadership and management).

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