I was very excited to be invited to a round table discussion with @TristramHuntMP on Friday. Not least because there is a chance he could be our new man in Whitehall for education: making decisions that will impact upon us all but also because it was at 2:30pm on Friday afternoon which meant I could be home early after popping into Asda to buy a box of wine!
I had no idea what to expect or more worryingly what to ask. I certainly know what I think is important in education and what direction I would like to see it move in but I wasn’t sure if that was the point. I’ve been completely brainwashed by the last ten years of lesson observation expectations: I need to know the learning objective or else I just can’t function! I was also a little bit scared that my question would be too small minded – did he really want to talk about ‘Levels’ or SPAG tests? Is that honestly all I could bring to the table? The big grown up table of education? It would be like the first Olympic committee when Seb Coe asked everyone around the room to think strategically about holding the Olympic Games in London and I’d be the one fixating about the colour of the medal ribbons or why on the Olympic logo, London, didn’t use a capital ‘L’.
This was my chance to make a profound contribution to the future of education and I had nothing! Luckily, neither did he.
Now that’s mean, I’m sorry. That was a cheap gag and in all fairness it does him an injustice. He had some ideas and he went through a few of them; and ok at times his delivery was similar to contestants on ‘Dragon’s Den’: the ones who half way through their pitch realise that their big idea makes about as much sense as the word ‘foap’ in a year 1 phonic test. He would occasionally trail off in the middle of his idea for ‘re-shaping localised school accountability measures through a single representative body who had ultimate accountability for securing improvement measures in sets of locally aligned schools’ (or something) and look at us saying ‘I mean, what do you think?’
Now I can’t speak for the other five head teachers who were there but at no point did we stand up and say ‘By Gove, I think he’s got it!’ But neither did we get up, slap him about the chops and tell him to get a grip. We recognised (at least I did) that he is engaging with school leaders to find out about issues that matter and in my mind he genuinely seemed to care. (I can’t say whether he cares because it’s his job or because he cares about education but either way he’s motivated and he wants to listen.)
I’ll admit the first thirty minutes did sort of go over my head/interests: academy take overs/new schools planning/school improvement models/executive heads. But eventually we settled in to interesting things that will affect everyone in education rather than specific schools in specific circumstances. So what were they? I have tried to summarise some of the things we talked about and what I write will be what I walked away thinking about whilst queuing to buy my box of wine.
Local Authority: There is no model and there isn’t one being planned. The landscape of education is doomed to be disparate groups ‘challenging and supporting each other’. I hate this. It really depresses me. Loads of little power hungry groups all looking for the next weakling to eat up and digest. No shared accountability, no shared vision for standards across cities. Everyone doing what they want and proving that it is working for them even though we’ll all be judging ourselves against different criteria and against each other. I hate it. I actually want to live in a world where we are ‘all in it together’ and this ain’t it. I don’t think @TristramHuntMP wants it either but I think we’ve gone too far to get anything like a unified front back again. I think he looked most pained when trying to establish how getting joined up support and accountability over large areas of the country could work because he knows it’s never going to happen. Gove’s freedoms are in fact opportunities to divide and conquer – destroying consistency, professionalism and looking after all children, families and teachers.
National Curriculum: I think @TristramHuntMP thought I was joking when I said I genuinely wasn’t getting ready for the curriculum because a) I like my school’s topics as they are b) I’m trying to make sure that my ‘standards’ are too good for any ofsted inspector to care about our deviation from the NC and c) I’m banking on him winning and reinstating the lovely curriculum we nearly had through the Rose report. I did say that I was concerned that as there were all these different models of schools that could weasel out of implementing it leaving us poor state maintained schools at a huge disadvantage. His reply was that he was going to make it so that any school could not do the NC which begs the question what is the bloody point of having it anyway?
Standards/Ofsted/Gove: There were questions about the relationship between ofsted and DfE and the need to re-think how primary schools are inspected. Also about the fact that the expectations put on us are being constantly raised but there is no substance underneath to guide us on the path to improvement. 85% floor targets, getting rid of levels, changing tests: all just put out there followed by the caveat that if you moan that it’s not fair you get beaten by the ‘low expectations’ stick. Finally we tried to say to him that as long as you’re not Gove you’ll be fine. He looked at us rather sternly and said ‘But what do parents say of Gove? He wants high standards and discipline in schools. How do I compete with that?’ Therein lies what I think will be the hardest part of his success: convincing parents he also wants that but assuring teachers he’ll achieve it standing alongside us.
He’s made a start: he spoke to six primary head teachers and none of us left angry (although we were all going home early on Friday and this may have been a factor). His main strength is that he hasn’t got a good plan (stay with me Tristram, stay with me) but he’s willing to talk to us in order to get one. So my advice: keep listening!
(oh, and get rid of SPAG, give us back a good national curriculum, change ofsted, get rid of free schools, make assessment procedures consistent from EYFS to KS3, don’t give free school meals for all but help us give FSM breakfasts, make primary uniform compulsory, and stop the birds crapping all over my car outside my school-probably should have said this at the meeting, would have saved us all some time.)