Is there hope for education under labour? Part 1 Schools

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Tristram HuntShadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt MP’

‘Education is the solution to social mobility and social justice. It was also the way in which we can secure our place in the competitive international economic scene.’

I may be an old cynic, but for me schools succeed in spite of political interference rather than because of it. Teachers, school leaders and those of us working in associated areas of education are usually very creative. We work around initiatives that we see as flawed to deliver the best that we can for our students. Yet politics plays a big part in our lives – more so over the past 5 years where the pace and extent of educational reform has been unprecedented. With a general election looming thoughts are now focussed on what the political parties are planning for education. Will education budgets be protected? Will the reforms currently in the pipeline be carried out? Have the major parties got sensible policies for the future of education?
At a meeting yesterday I got the chance, with a group of school leaders to hear first-hand what Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education had to say. The meeting took place at the Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA) one of the few academies in Brighton and Hove. The meeting was brief, but afforded us the opportunity to ask questions about his views and the direction he would take if he became Secretary of State for education.

Where do we Start?

The place to start, naturally is with Early Years education and he hoped to re-boot the Sure Start scheme – this is the way to prepare our children for future education. He saw children’s centres that involved not just schools or nursery specialists, but the involvement of other services as well such as the NHS. He wants to commit to 25 hours free childcare for every family.
So far, nothing new; nothing that hasn’t been reported elsewhere.

Schools Policy

Moving on to schools policy, here we start with a condemnation (with which I wholeheartedly agree) of the “structural chaos” wrought by the current government on schools. The proliferation of Academies, the experimental free schools and sheer volume of different school types has missed the point of how we achieve educational change and reform. He mentioned the map in the DfE with its different coloured spots indicating which schools were academies, converters (forced academies even?) and state schools. The type of school, said Tristram, is not the important factor it’s the strength of leadership and teaching that is the engine of change. Here, at least I can agree with him. I’m guessing that this is his rationale for not reverting academies – they are what they are and changing their name or status is not the issue, it’s how it is led and how good the teaching is that’s important.
He supports the College of Teaching – as do I. No profession should be without a professional body, but (and this is where the GTC went wrong) it must be built from within not imposed from outside. The campaign to ‘claim your college’ is the right way to go. Teachers must reclaim their profession from the politicians. Already I see the cynics stating that such a college is pointless as it will not represent ‘real teachers’ with some claiming that only teachers who have regular contact on a daily basis with teaching classes of children should have a say in how the profession is run. I understand this view-point, though I disagree that whole swathes of professional expertise should be shut out and an ‘exclusive club’ created whereby membership is suddenly withdrawn because you simply move to a senior post, or circumstance means you end up not doing the ‘right type’ or ‘amount’ of teaching to qualify for membership. Of course a College of Teaching should be dominated by teachers who teach on a regular basis. Yet the fact that such teachers will become active in running a College of Teachers will also take them away from the classroom and involved in many other aspects of educational policy and reform. It’s likely that some of these would then fall foul of the ‘rule’ that they must be classroom based teachers to qualify for membership/office.

No School is an Island

This is something that should not need saying. Yet in my time in education we have always had a tension between competitiveness and collaboration. We have, in the past been told that schools must compete with each other for pupils, to climb the ‘league tables’ of results. Then we have calls for collaboration – to learn from each other how best to improve our results. And it’s not just state schools, the private sector should share its secrets of success and techniques, at risk of losing their charitable status.
Today, schools are run as businesses – we have schools who no longer have a Bursar but a ‘business manager’ schools have variously sold consultancy, courses, rented out premises, even run leisure centres for profit. All of these things have been at one time or another hailed as ‘innovative’ and as a way for schools to improve their financial situation. Critics say that such ventures can be distractions. We are now in the position of schools, multimillion pound ‘industries’, being issued with Financial Notices to Improve, headteachers and ‘Executive Heads’ being charged with large-scale fraud – some convicted and barred from teaching. My concern is that in all of this we are losing sight of the purpose of schools, to educate. That is the core purpose, not making money.
Schools should collaborate – not because a politician says so, but because as professionals we should share our expertise. If I see the course I write for my pupils as some form of ‘commercial enterprise’ then my option is to not share but sell to the school next door. We already have commercial arms for that, publishers.

Directors of School Standards

Tristram Hunt wants to put in place Directors of School Standards, here I would have liked a bit more time to see how these positions differ from the Local Authority positions – is this just a new name for an already established post in LAs? Or is this a parallel structure or integrated with LAs. I like his notion of devolving away from Whitehall oversight of schools. For me local accountability is the key to an effective education system. If schools are run remotely (e.g. by an academy chain miles away) and local residents have little contact or say in how the schools are run or where they are located it is not a good thing. Tristram wants these new Directors and LAs to be able to bid for funding for new schools to meet local need and he is clear that consultation should also be meaningful and local – again things that I cannot disagree with. Too often we have seen meaningless ‘consultation’ for academisation where there was never any intention of listening to the views of the local people or more importantly the parents. An exception to this, however is in Brighton. Hove Park School started down the road to academisation (not forced, or due to poor performance) and the voice of the local community and the voice of the parents was so strong the school rejected academisation.
In my view, it’s such a pity that the Billion pounds spent on the Academy programme by Gove was not put to better use. If Gove saw the issue as poorly performing Local Authorities (and I have to agree there are some shocking LAs) then attack the problem and reform that structure to make it effective, don’t spend your money on creating a whole new, untried, untested structure that simply gives schools to privatised companies with little to no local accountability. The cynic in me feels that Gove’s plan was always to privatise and allow for profit schools. If the Conservatives win the next general election, that may still happen.
One question I did have was whether or not academies, if they so wished, could revert to Local Authority schools under labour. Tristram’s answer was “yes”, well a qualified “yes”. There are, he rightly states, issues surrounding the contracts that Academy trusts have which means some academies within trusts could not easily go back to LA control. He was also cautious about schools ‘flipping’ their status too often (perhaps MPs flipping their first and second homes and the scandal that ensued came to mind here). But the principle that schools could revert back to LAs was one that he seemed to fully support.

In my next blog I will look at Tristram’s views on Initial Teacher Education, funding the “unjust” taxation on sixth form colleges, post 16 core curriculum and work experience for all.

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One thought on “Is there hope for education under labour? Part 1 Schools

    […] to be recreating the Local Authority model yet, outside the Local Authorities. When Tristram Hunt talked to a group of Sussex Heads and education specialists recently, nothing he said caused me to be either excited or angry, but of course opposition plans are great […]

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