Richard Bird reflects on the way the current government has tackled education, and imagines a world with no Ofsted or National Curriculum

Now is a good time to dream, because it may be that we are on the cusp of major change: to use a current trend phrase, a ‘tipping point’. When a party is nearing the end of its period of government, it is often the case that it divides in two directions: to seek the party’s heartland and – conversely – to explore the policies which the party that replaces it will introduce. John Major’s privatisation of the railways at the end of the period of Tory hegemony is an example of the one and, for those with even longer memories, Denis Healey’s move towards monetarism before the Thatcher government took power is an example of the other.

Today we see a similar situation. On the one hand is Ed Balls, driving forward all-embracing government from the base of his all-embracing department. The range of Every Child Matters initiatives already includes teenage pregnancy coordinators; a happiness czar; a national play strategy; and, possibly, national obesity league tables. The language used gets more and more baroque and insanely ambitious. One local authority is at present advertising for directors of transformation. One wonders if their strapline will be ‘Izzy Whizzy, let’s get busy!’

However, on the other hand, in a short but much-noticed article in Prospect, Philip Collins and Richard Reeves have argued for an entirely different direction. They criticise the Fabian ‘ benign view of the power of the central, expert state to build a fairer, better society’. They describe the waste of money as a result of  ‘two assumptions: first, that [any] problem is amenable to a policy solution; and second, that this solution ought to involve the establishment of a council, commission or task force.’ As they say, ‘The government has tested, often to destruction, the idea that a bigger, higher-spending state can deliver a better society.’

This article would perhaps have attracted less attention if Philip Collins had not been Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter. Their suggestion is that the state should be more humble, less authoritarian.

Imagine there’s no Ofsted…
Which brings us back to John Lennon. Teachers might like to imagine a world in which there was…

  • no Ofsted
  • no virtual legislation (where a minister has only to suggest something and Ofsted springs into action and includes it in the inspection schedule)
  • no National Curriculum
  • no SATs
  • no strategies
  • examinations in the hands of the profession
  • no league tables
  • no naming and shaming
  • continuous professional development in the hands of teachers, through teachers’ centres.

No SATS or strategies…
Of course, we would not entirely be imagining. There was such a world. It is called the 1970s. If it sounds idyllic, it some ways it was. It produced a great outpouring of thinking about the purposes of schooling and curriculum development. To an extent, the subsequent decades have been living off the developments of that period.

However, like all idyllic dream landscapes, it had a dark side. The reason that there was less interference in schools then was that they were seen as less important. The idea that the country needed to educate all available talent rather than the top 10 or 20 % was looked on as a purely rhetorical flourish: no one in power took it seriously. Teachers were not seen as people who had to have the highest possible standards: after all, the majority of pupils would take up well-paid employment in process industries where a fairly minimal educational achievement was all that was required.  There was therefore relatively little money in the system and class sizes unthinkable today were common. There was no Local Management of Schools. Money, repairs, furniture and staffing structures depended on the whim of a local authority official.

But some things were hard to do…
The curriculum was indeed in the hands of teachers, but this meant that a child moving from one area of the country to another might have to start all over again.  Primary schools had no clear duties regarding curriculum. They themselves chose what the children studied. It might be said that the only commitment that was shared was to teach reading and the basics of arithmetic, and to teach children how to learn. Secondary schools could expect nothing in the way of consistency in their new pupils.

Training was in the hands of teachers, but many teachers took no interest in it. ‘I don’t go on courses because I am not looking for promotion’ was not an abnormal statement. There was no effectiveness ‘bar’ for reaching the top of the professional scale.  But there were no criteria for promotion, either, and few job descriptions. Teachers were employed by the local authority and the links between unions and officers meant that getting rid of a bad teacher was, in some authorities, virtually impossible. There was no 1,265 hours to be worked at the direction of the headteacher  – and so, in some schools, no professional meetings. Safeguarding children from unsuitable people was theoretically a priority, but employers acted in a way that was more directed to moving people on, rather than ruling them out of teaching.

Parents who were unhappy about the school on offer to their children had no choice whatever in admissions, nor any opportunity to express a preference. Local authorities were in control. Their monopoly meant that they could either be inspirational or tyrannical, operating on the basis of favouritism. Her Majesty’s inspectors of schools could state that the best – whether authorities, schools or teachers – were excellent and inspirational; the worst were dire.

No way back to that world…
However humble the state becomes, a return to the 1970s is simply not on. There have been too many protests about ‘postcode lotteries’ in the NHS for there to be much tolerance of a return to local government of the old sort (at least in England; the Welsh electorate seems to be more willing to accept stark differences on different sides of local boundaries).

To strip the power to manage schools from governors might also be a step too far. There are also questions as to whether the free-for-all of the curriculum at primary level could return; and it is doubtful, despite the government’s instincts, whether the denial of parents’ right to express a preference for a school could be reinstated.

So, if a return to those ways is not feasible, what might a humble state look like? What follows is intended as a provocation to thought rather than a blueprint; but, although it may be two years before the world changes, change it certainly will and it is as well to be ready for it.

Certainly there will be fewer central government-funded initiatives. This is because the money will not be there. The choice between centrally-funded civil servants and front-line teachers will be a no-brainer for a government determined to cut back on its role. The advisers, coordinators and school improvement officers will have to go back into the classroom.

Will there be a National Curriculum? Without one, the whole superstructure of SATs, CVA, RAISEonline and league tables crumbles. This may raise a cheer, but there may be collateral damage. For example, the free movement of children becomes difficult. It could be argued that the preparation for 16+ examinations may be sufficient to dictate to schools what will be taught in earlier years; but this did not work in the 1970s and things might go backwards if the clear path of the National Curriculum disappears.

Perhaps a national core curriculum in maths and science, a history syllabus and a citizenship syllabus to promote British consciousness and community cohesion (or more correctly, inter-community cohesion) could be laid down for secondary schools, with the small addition of the present entitlements at 14+. A national curriculum for primary schools may also be essential.

The question then is: ‘What about testing?’ There is general consensus that children are over-tested and that the stakes are too high, not for the youngsters, but for their teachers. National progress can be judged by sampling tests, which would not involve all schools or all children. England is now alone in believing in tests. In a period of financial stringency they are a luxury that will not be afforded. However, if there is no other external judgement of individual schools, inspection will have to focus more on observation than on statistics in validating school self-assessment.If government is to be more humble in initiative and micro-management, have we got the balance right in terms of those things only central government can do? Should the examination system not be a function of central government rather than private enterprise? But there again, the growing movement by universities to set tests akin to the American SAT rather than relying on A-levels must raise the question as to the need for extensive external examination at all, as opposed to internal evaluation. After all, in the USA and Germany it is the student’s teacher, not some external examiner, who grades the students.

The government’s policy for schools is, in law. ‘choice and diversity’. The idea is that local authorities should be commissioners only and that any number of organisations might be the sponsors, founders or promoters of schools. Sponsorship, however, is not entirely without problems. Some current sponsors appear to be going back to the old local authority model, and exercising a control over ‘their’ schools and their teachers goes against the spirit of local management and the independence of the profession.

There is also the danger that the schools may be linked to particular communities and be community prisons for their children. It may be that central government will have to take a stronger line on both these areas.

Just a humble suggestion…
I do not have room to discuss how strategic planning of schools might be done locally or how major strategic policy like Building Schools for the Future can be fitted into a humble state. However, there is one aspect of the government’s role with which all teachers might concur. Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, records that ‘A Locrian who proposed any new law stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck and if the law was rejected the innovator was instantly strangled.’

Would that the same applied to a government that has introduced, on average, one education act per year since it has come to power. Humility might usefully return to law-making as well!