Eight education policy priorities

After two years of Gove-driven education policy, with the rest of the education world frozen like rabbits in the full-beam headlights of his reforms, it feels as if other voices are starting to find themselves at last. In recent weeks we have had Andrew Adonis’s book Education, education, education: reforming England’s schools; the thoughts of six education thinkers in a Guardian blog on 2015 and beyond: what’s next for school reform? athttp://www.guardian.co.uk/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2012/oct/22/2015-school-reform-predictions/print; some mainly secondary head teachers emerging as a coherent group on twitter http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/oct/22/education-reform-twitter-heads; and an article from United Learning chief Jon Coles arguing why the education profession must have a Royal College of Teaching at http://bit.ly/R4HTW3.

Many of the themes in these pieces touch on policies that I advocated in my years as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, and which ASCL continues to articulate now. Taken together, I firmly believe that they form the basis for a better education system for all young people.

1.    Focus on teaching and learning

David Blunkett’s  four-year term as education secretary was unique in two ways: first, stating that his policies would be about ‘standards not structures’, and second, focusing on primary schools, whereas most education policy relates to secondary education.

With so much policy change over so many years, being head of a secondary school has been described as being like captaining a ship in a storm without compass or map, or doing a 1000-piece jigsaw with no picture on the box.

In fact, what this has enabled good heads to do is to decide on their own school’s priorities, ignore most government policy announcements and focus relentlessly on the quality of teaching and learning.

As Robert Hill points out in his Guardian blog as part of 2015 and beyond, Professor John Hattie points the way in Visible learning (2008) to proven strategies for making learning more effective.

A values-led approach to school leadership is underscored by the moral purpose of raising the life chances of every young person in the school and, increasingly, by the wider moral purpose of working with other schools for the good of all young people in the area.

It must have at its heart the first point in Andrew Adonis’s manifesto – a new deal for teachers that makes every school a learning community for both adults and children, led by excellent hub schools in each area.

2.    Under fives and parenting classes

Spending my whole career in the secondary sector, I have always argued for resources for secondary schools, but it is well proven that the job of secondary and primary schools would be easier if governments recognised that, in terms of bangs for your bucks, investment in early years and in parenting classes for parents of newborn children do more for social mobility than anything else.

3.    A whole education for all young people

At a time when the education of too many young people is being narrowed to what was called the ‘paying subjects’ under the dreadful Revised Code in the mid-19th century, it has never been more important to fight for a fully rounded education for all young people. Increasingly, the case that we make for that at Whole Education (www.wholeeducation.org) is being recognised by school leaders and put into practice in our pathfinder schools. Come to Whole Education’s third annual conference (http://bit.ly/Sw4Z8z) on 21 November and find out.

Whole Education drives a coach and horses through the knowledge/skills debate by stating clearly that a fully rounded education has to be both/and, not either/or, for every young person.

4.    A Better Bac

Andrew Adonis has advocated an A-level Bac and a Tech Bac, which has also been put forward by Kenneth Baker of the Baker Dearing Trust to recognise the achievements of students in the emerging university technical colleges.

Michael Gove’s English Bac of five subjects at GCSE, potentially to be extended to an English Bac Certificate to replace GCSEs, is a set of reforms too far and is aimed at the wrong target.

What is needed, as Tim Brighouse points out in the 2015 and beyond blog is a radical re-think that recognises that few young people (and even fewer in future) leave education at 16, so we no longer need a big examination industry for 16 year olds, but, as a Green Paper of about eight years ago stated, tests at 16 should be a ‘progress check’, not a terminal exam.

Then we could have a proper bac at 18, with the different levels proposed by Sir Mike Tomlinson, as a summative qualification – not separate A-bac and tech-bac, but a single over-arching qualification that is greater than the sum of its parts, incorporating A-levels, GCSEs and vocational assessments, with a common core of essential knowledge and skills. This Better Bac would be a fitting qualification to sum up the achievements of young people who have received a whole education and deserve to be accredited for it.

5.    A national network of chartered assessors

One of the forgotten recommendations of the Tomlinson report was that in-course assessment should be increased in importance as part of external qualifications and, to enable this to be done with validity and credibility, there should be a national network of chartered assessors – senior professionals externally accredited to carry out internal and external assessment to national standards.

This is at the heart of the work of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (www.ciea.org.uk ), which works with awarding organisations, Ofqual, schools and colleges, as well as professional organisations outside education, to raise the professionalism of the assessment process, once memorably described by Dr Ken Boston, newly arrived in the UK in 2002 as head of the qualifications authority, as a ‘cottage industry’.

With a network of chartered assessors across the country, greater reliance could be placed on in-course assessment as a component of qualification grades and the exam bill faced by school and colleges could be considerably reduced from the present £600million.

6.    Intelligent accountability

Part of the problem for the examinations system is that it often seems as if it is designed first for accountability and second for learning. Schools need a balance of pressure and support but, while pressure through accountability is overdone, there has never been a strategic approach to support.

Intelligent accountability would ensure that the aims of schools were sensibly reflected in accountability measures. Perverse incentives, such as that created by the five A*-C GCSE measure to concentrate on the C/D borderline with no credit given for getting pupils from B to A or from E to D, should be avoided. Threshold measures, such as this or the E-Bac, are bound to create perverse incentives.

The intelligent role for accountability is to stimulate improvement, not shout ‘Rubbish’ from the safety of a London office. Where performance measures indicate that the school is starting to slip, or where the school itself is concerned that it is not performing as well as it would like in certain areas, support mechanisms should be triggered at an early stage.

7.    Strong school networks

At that point, the National College for School Leadership or a local commissioner would broker support from one of the many centres of excellence locally that would be on a database of good practice.

Both the Labour and Coalition governments have recognised the work of the National College and have acknowledged that the expertise in school improvement lies within the school system itself. Both have made school-to-school support into the school improvement policy of first choice. That is as it should be, but it needs a better database to enable it to draft in the right kind of support as quickly as possible.

8.    An evidence base for education policy

Using proven good practice to improve the work of schools is one way in which evidence of what works is used, but this is rarely replicated in government policy making, which is too often based on political dogma rather than well-researched evidence. The Sutton Trust has a fine record in trying out new ideas and then scaling up what works; if only central government adopted the same approach!

The Centre for Evidence Based Education at York University has made a good start in this field and its work will be developed in the proposed Education Media Centre, which will provide journalists with more solid information on which to base their stories, and the Office for Education Improvement, an idea put forward by Stephen Twigg, which I am researching, to feed evidence into the policy making process.

The Prince’s Teaching Institute plans for a Royal College of Teaching will have evidence gathering as part of its role. Just as people would not want to go to a doctor who doesn’t keep up to date by reading The Lancet, so the practice of teaching must become better informed by research and evidence.

With a stronger base of evidence, the debate about the direction of education policy in England would open a new chapter. There are welcome signs that this is starting to happen.