I have to admit I am not sure that I understand where education will be going with our new vibrant and enthusiastic coalition government in the driving seat. The last time I looked for signs of exciting ways forward was a few months ago when I tried to make sense of each of the main political party’s manifestos (Primary Headship 69, February). I did it, as I said then, so that you didn’t have to. I could say the same about finding out what the government intends to do now that it is in power and hopefully in control.

‘The government believes we need to reform our school system to tackle educational inequality, which has widened in recent years, and to give greater powers to parents and pupils to choose a good school. We want to ensure high standards of discipline in the classroom, robust standards and the highest quality teaching. We also believe that the state should help parents, community groups and others come together to improve the education system by starting new schools.’

From The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, May 2010


Money, money, money

The Queen’s Speech at the opening of parliament suggested that several education quangos were expected to face what were euphemistically called ‘budget restrictions’ and we are now beginning to recognise what this means. The threat to the quangos doesn’t seem to have translated into radical culls but there have been some changes. The body responsible for designing the school curriculum – the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) – has been told to start winding down its operations, although some of it will continue for a while. Becta, the agency in charge of promoting the use of technology in schools, has been scrapped and the School Food Trust that was partly responsible for raising standards in school meals has been cut by at least £1m. The Training and Development Agency for schools (TDA), which trains teachers and ensures schools are delivering government policy, has lost a huge £30m and it is possible that Teachers TV, although retaining some of its broadcasting potential, may have to continue online.

At the very least money for building projects will be reduced and direct budget cuts will mean many new initiatives, eg extended schools, will be underfunded and impossible to run at the level they are operating now.

Refocusing the DfE

‘We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account.’

Michael Gove has suggested that there is a new focus implied by the department’s new moniker. One of his first acts has been to tell staff in the department that he wants to ‘refocus the department on its core purpose of supporting teaching and learning’. Apparently he is already planning ways of underlining this break from the past by advising us of a raft of past guidance, red tape and targets that we will not have to adhere to. It will certainly be a bonus to all of us if the bureaucratic, centralised micromanagement of our schools was limited and reduced in some way. It is time for government to take a step back and to loosen its grip on how we manage and lead each of our schools. There needs to be more autonomy, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise that the present testing system is causing problems and a considerable amount of unrest. We do need a common, prescribed curriculum and in many ways we have one already that could, with a little tweaking here and there, continue to be used professionally and rigorously.

Let’s go to Sweden

‘We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.’

One of the favourite ideas of the Conservatives has been the Swedish free school model where anyone – parents, charities and businesses – can set up their own state-funded but independently run schools. 10% of Sweden’s children and young people attend ‘free schools’, many of which are quite small, with around 180 pupils. Their success, according to the Swedish government, lies in the fact that although they receive around £6,000 per year per pupil from the government, they are allowed to make a profit. The Conservatives have always said that ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ this model is adopted in England, profit-making will not be part of the deal. But, again according to the Swedish model, profit-making is one of the key ways to ensure success because schools that are making money will fight hard to continue to succeed and will never become complacent. Under this system popular and profit-making schools will expand and struggling schools will close.

Academies

In Britain, leading educational charity the National Education Trust suggests that all schools should become ‘independent state schools’ run by not-for-profit foundations who pass the democratic control of the school system to the schools themselves. This, as you can imagine, is radical but perhaps not so extreme when considered alongside the idea that is already a reality – that of academy schools. David Cameron himself, during the election campaign, suggested that ‘too many of the poorest children are stuck in chaotic classrooms in bad schools’. His aim is that schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted, including around 2,000 primaries, could obtain academy freedoms by September this year.

‘We will ensure that all new academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.’


Pupil premium

‘We will fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere.’

Of course, spending decisions will have to be shaped by ‘coalition consensus’ but it seems that there will be some kind of ‘pupil premium’ designed to help disadvantaged pupils. But the premium already exists in all but name, and there will have to be significant and genuine increases on top of the funds provided by other kinds of deprivation funding if the policy is to avoid being seen as a sham.

The curriculum and testing

The coalition agreement seems to be promising greater freedom – but measure this against the abrupt and confusing way that Sir Jim Rose’s review was stopped in its tracks. For all its failings, and perhaps there were more than we at first realised, the review did try to simplify the curriculum and make it easier to plan and teach it.

‘We will keep external assessment, but will review how Key Stage 2 tests operate in future. We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate, the progress of children of all abilities.’

If there is one pressing issue it is the National Curriculum tests. They have already sowed dischord this year and, if changes are not made, will cause problems next year as well. Gove has made it clear that he doesn’t want to rush into what is a potential minefield until the air has cleared in the wake of this year’s partial boycott. Mick Brookes was relatively positive when he said that there is still ‘a big gap between us but I think we can close it.’ I hope so, because it is an issue that can divide teachers and governors and prevent us moving our schools forwards.

I don’t think accountability has ever been an issue in itself. We all believe in it but probably differ in what it means and, indeed, how we are actually held accountable. The Liberal Democrats certainly see the need for external accountability but – and this is important – see a greater role for teacher assessment. One way of doing this, of course, is to separate the different and conflicting aims of the assessments we do – diagnostic, national, individual and group monitoring – and not just pile them together in a single set of tests. This is a real opportunity for a new government.

And finally

Several areas offer key opportunities for the new government. How schools are funded, the types of schools we want in the future, how we teach, what we teach and how we monitor, evaluate and assess are all fundamentally important and will influence how we work, how our teachers work and how we lead and manage during the next few years. These opportunities are a challenge for the new government and I hope they are bold enough to grasp the nettle and triumphantly improve our schools and the opportunities for our children.

Former primary headteacher Roger Smith.

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