Then and now: 30 years of education policy

It is 30 years ago this week that I became a head teacher in a very different education world in which, as head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, a local authority secondary school, I had a great deal of autonomy over the curriculum but almost none over finance, and very little accountability to local or national government.

Inspections rarely took place and, when they did, the reports were not published. Local authorities, supposedly ‘running’ state schools, were most interventionist on finance, staffing and minor matters, such as premises maintenance. Central government was still unsure how to exercise power over state education, with secretary of state Keith Joseph the previous year having taken over from Mark Carlisle, who had admitted he ‘knew nothing of state schools, having used them neither for myself nor my children’.

HMI was in the driving seat on curriculum policy, supported by local authority inspectors, who were more active in primary schools than in secondary, but many of whom were of very poor quality, often having fled from classrooms where they had been weak teachers. Examination boards had started making regular changes to O-level and A-level syllabuses, without government interference. Governing bodies were powerless, dominated by local authority appointees and containing few if any parents of the school.

My headship from 1982 to 1998 was neatly divided into two by the introduction of local management of schools (LMS) in 1990. I had been a ‘senior teacher’ from the inception of that role in 1974 and deputy head, both in large comprehensive schools in the north-east, so I had eight years’ experience when I was appointed to headship, a job for which no training or qualification was required, although I had been on a formative three-week management course during 1981-82. I was looking forward to becoming a head, but with great apprehension about the responsibilities. On appointment, I recall saying to the local authority senior adviser that my most important task was to ‘water the plants’, i.e. to encourage a talented staff to implement new ideas and to grow professionally, following a head with very high standards, but who had insisted on making all decisions himself and whose catchphrase was said to be ‘No’.

On the curriculum at Durham Johnston in 1982, the timetable structure was changed to enable more student choice at what would later come to be known as key stage 4, different A-level and O-level syllabuses were chosen to suit the interests and experience of a well-qualified staff, Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) mode 3 courses were designed, taught and assessed by the school itself – with some light moderation by the awarding body – to try to motivate those for whom O-level was too tough. Computers were starting to be used and taught about and GCSE was still six years away. Emphasis was placed on the quality of teaching for 11 to 14 year olds with a curriculum that prepared them for the next stage.

Up to 1990, there was some flexibility over the structure of the staff, but not much. The number of teachers and support staff and the number of responsibility posts at each grade were determined by the local authority. So I was told in February or March that the school would have, for example, 62.5 teachers, with one deputy head, two senior teachers, four teachers at grade D, ten at grade C, etc. The number and roles of the very few support staff were also centrally prescribed.

And worse was to come on staffing. During the falling rolls of the 1980s, the school was not allowed to make any appointments to teaching posts until all possibilities had been exhausted in the local authority redeployment system. As a large school that was always full, this meant taking teachers who would not have been appointed in open competition and only being able to appoint new young staff after 31 May when the best had already been snapped up elsewhere. Only by drawing up job descriptions that were very round holes was the school permitted to avoid taking the square pegs in the redeployment pool.

The school budget over which I had control was about £30,000, to be used to buy books and equipment and, increasingly, computers. There was no money for the maintenance of premises, where the school had to wait its turn as its building and decorative state deteriorated year by year. Any repairs to the building – even a broken window – had to go through the local authority and could take ages.

It is difficult to convey the extent of the change brought in by LMS  – the budget increased to over £2 million with control over the number and structure of the staff and the ability to make appointments at any time of year without compulsory recourse to redeployed staff, the opportunity to increase the number of support staff and extend their work over a wide range of roles, to decorate the school, to start an artist-in-residence scheme, to start carpeting the school (staffroom and modern languages classrooms first), and to encourage ideas with financial backing.

In 1984, HMI reports on individual school inspections started to be published and Durham Johnston was one of the first. We were given nine months’ notice of the date and a team of 20 HMIs visited the school for a week, leaving no stone unturned. On the Monday evening, I welcomed the team with a wine reception as fellow professionals helping us to improve the school. Most judged us according to our aims, some according to their preconceived idea of how a subject should be taught.

After thirty years of government fiddling with national education policy, we now have an almost continuous argument arising from the tension between raising achievement and the standard of the examinations. Until this tension is resolved in favour of raising achievement, it is difficult to see how public policy on education can sensibly move forward.

This tension is inexorably tied to the debate on accountability, which is still far from the intelligent accountability for which I first called in 2003 after Onora O’Neill’s Reith Lectures, A Question of Trust. Autonomy and accountability are two sides of the same coin in public service.  We have to accept that a high degree of accountability is bound to be associated with the extent of autonomy that heads have in England – as much autonomy as anywhere in the world and far more than most.

The three strongest drivers of policy in individual schools are values, finance and accountability. The values that drive those who work in education seem to me to remain as strong as ever – perhaps stronger than they have ever been, as we seek to close the gaps between the achievements of those from different backgrounds. Finance makes for some tough decisions, but is measurably far better than it was in 1982. Accountability has narrowed the curriculum for many young people, as schools concentrate on what mid-19th century educationists at the time of the Revised Code called the ‘paying subjects’, the modern equivalent of which are the key stage 2 tests for primary schools and the English baccalaureate subjects at age 16.

Then there is the ‘constant rhetoric of decline’ (Matthew Taylor, Observer, 2 Sept 2012), which has sapped teacher morale year after year. It used to be the late Rhodes Boyson who would pop up every August and complain about falling standards. Secretaries of State, goaded by certain newspapers, are often to be found at the forefront of the complainants, as they seek to create the dissatisfaction out of which they can then implement their shiny new policies and claim improvements for the credit of their party. James Callaghan started it with his Ruskin College speech in October 1976, bringing the school curriculum out of the secret garden and into the political fray, where it has been ever since.

Achievement is measurably higher in 2012 than in 1982 and much else in education has improved too, not least the work of the National College for School Leadership and the recognition that all the required expertise to improve the system lies in the schools themselves, not in Whitehall, not in local authority offices, and not in the corporate sector. Leading a school is a much more fulfilling job than it was in 1982, albeit with far more accountability and vulnerability. But it could have been so much better – the constant policy changes have diverted attention and sapped energy from school leaders and teachers. Only if a secretary of state has the courage to say that all future education policy changes will be firmly rooted in evidence will the system achieve its potential.

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