Pulling the levers, changing direction: Recent developments in English schools’ policy, Hammamet conference, British Council, 16 November 2013

This talk was given to the Hammamet conference of the British Council to delegates from Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunis and the UK.

The average length of the term of office of the Secretary of State for Education since 1944 has been 2.2 years. They come and go and, like a child in a railway signal box, they play with the levers of policy, changing the direction of the education train with disempowering frequency.
So it is very difficult to summarise in 10 minutes ‘Recent developments in English schools’ policy’ – not even UK policy, as Scotland, Wales and N Ireland have their own education ministries and policies.
The main policy levers for ministers are finance, school structures, curriculum, examinations and accountability.
I will speak briefly about three recent policy themes – autonomy, school accountability and leadership.
Since 1988, self-government for schools has increased and the role of the middle tier – the local district authority – has decreased. Schools in England have a huge amount of autonomy – they have complete control over budgets, staff structures and appointments, even in some cases over student admissions (although that is subject to a national code of practice and an ombudsman to adjudicate on fairness). Schools can also choose which other schools they partner with (although more on that in a minute).
Autonomy for the management of public services is of course rightly balanced by accountability – lots of it – but there are many complaints from schools that this is not ‘intelligent accountability’, i.e. the accountability levers introduce perverse incentives and drive schools to do things they do not want to do. Since 1988 the accountability levers have been: a detailed national curriculum, national testing at 7, 11, 14, 16 and 18 (although tests at 14 were abolished 5 years ago), published tables of school performance and a tough inspection regime. Schools have felt directly accountable to central government, not local government, and that is a reality particularly for the most self-governing schools. Accountability measures are changing (for the better, I should say) to focus on average performance and less on meeting thresholds. Floor targets lay down minimum performance levels and lead to intervention and sometimes closure for schools that are below the floor target.
School leadership
The greater the autonomy in a school system, the more important is the quality of school leadership. There has been a welcome recognition by government that the expertise in school improvement lies not in government offices, but in the leaders of successful schools. School-to-school support is the main principle of system improvement and schools are encouraged to work in partnerships. The moral purpose of school leaders – to improve the life chances of the young people in their school – has become the wider moral purpose of system leadership in their area or in their group of schools. Many of the best head teachers have become executive heads of groups of schools.
The London Challenge was a huge success, partnering the least successful schools with the most successful, using the expertise of the most successful school leaders, and moving London from the worst performing region in England to the best in ten years. Indeed, London is the only capital city in the western world where school performance is above the national average.
The National College for School Leadership has been important too, keeping England at the cutting edge of school leadership, helping head teachers to use their autonomy effectively and with a moral purpose.
But the balance between accountability and trust, of which we spoke yesterday, is not right, and head teachers have become very vulnerable to losing their jobs if their school has not jumped through the accountability hoops successfully.
England has had 25 years of detailed top-down prescriptive policy on curriculum which has reduced innovation in schools and narrowed curriculum too much to what is in the high-stakes tests, with a particularly detrimental effect on the arts and on vocational education, which is given poor recognition in the accountability measures.
The coalition government is now trying to give schools more curriculum freedom, but this is counter-balanced by the accountability measures and by the schools being in the habit of being told what to do. It is time for schools to stop looking up to government diktat and start looking out to the excellent practice taking place across the system.
Whole Education, which I chair, is an organisation that encourages schools to take advantage of their autonomy and the space in the curriculum (the school curriculum is much bigger than the national curriculum) to give young people a fully rounded education, developing both knowledge and skills – both/and, not either/or. This can be done not as separate lessons in knowledge and skills but as warp and weft of the same education experience. The skills that young people need are for entrepreneurship, yes, but broader than that – to make young people work-ready, life-ready and ready for further learning: good aims for any school system.
Complementing this, the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, which I also chair, trains teachers and examiners to raise the quality of the assessments that support the pedagogy and that test the students at the end of the course.
Other third sector organisations, such as the Curriculum Foundation and the National Education Trust, also work to support innovation and good practice in schools, not from a theoretical standpoint, but by spreading the excellent work that is happening in the best, most innovative schools.
The other welcome recent development is increased emphasis on the use of evidence in school practice. Alas, it is not yet matched by the use of evidence in policy making, as the train continues to change direction at dizzying speed.
There are, I hope, many lessons here for the developing systems of education in North Africa. Spread the best practice widely and use the policy levers wisely, on the basis of evidence; but please, not too frequently.

Dr John Dunford
16 November 2013