So, while I soak up the sunshine and try not to indulge in too much wine and ice cream, the one thing I have been able to do, for the first time in years, is stand in the distance and cast an eye over the landscape I have left behind. Clarify my vision, check my maps, making sure that my compass is set straight. What I see both troubles and excites me. Much of this is to do with what dismayed me before I stepped away, most of which is to do with political whim playing with our education system, all of which has fallen sharply into focus as we head towards the General Election.
I ought to confess early on that when I hear the latest ill-conceived proclamation of what actual or aspiring secretaries of state for education feel is ‘best’, I crave being at the front line and feel guilty for not being a present and correct comrade in arms with my colleagues at school. I hear and see their exasperation, anger and sometimes their sense of resignation when changes are made to performance measures, inspection guidelines, examinations, external assessment, the national curriculum, pay and conditions, pensions, funding – and the rest. I witness time and energy spent trying hard to hold on to principles and values while trying to protect their schools from the very real harm that can be done by being the brave non-conformists who don’t change everything to please inspection teams and deflect desktop analyses of adequacy. Judgements made around ‘the gap’. Ah yes, if you aren’t trying to close the gap then you are ‘racing to the bottom’, part of ‘the blob’ and ‘enemies of promise’. (I will ‘let it go’ with regards to those particular insults one day, but not quite yet, they are important to hold on to for motivational purposes).
The more I scan all that is done in the name of the gap, the more I find myself troubled by the ownership that has been taken of its definition. When we strip away the narrow view of exam outcomes that ‘matter’, when we look at what is being poured into ring-fenced Pupil Premium funds while budgets are being shrunk, when we look at the mechanisms by which you stand or fall as a school depending on how you address the former with the latter, we know that doing our best will never be deemed good enough by those who deem to judge us. Why? Because it is a faceless definition. It doesn’t want to take the individual child, school or community into account. Yes, in an ideal world all children would have the same life chances, equal career opportunities, access to future financial security, good prospects for physical and mental wellbeing because they were able to ‘do well’ at school. What we all know is that ‘doing well’ can mean so many things for so many different children and for most it really isn’t having a brace of ‘good’ GCSEs, defined by someone else, that is going to get them ahead in life or inspire their love of learning.
While we’re at it, what else won’t transform their lives?
• Being baseline tested at the start of their reception year and potentially labelled for life by means of a conversation (because all 4 and 5 year olds are great at telling you what they know or can do - my son told me he’d done nothing but sit on the rug all day at school today, must be lower percentile…).
• Being tested to sound out real and nonsense words to see if they have grasped phonics, because all children learn to read the same way, of course. Oh, and not sure if testing this on the ‘brightest’ ones earlier is going to prove very much of use.
• Being taught vast amounts of content at the cost of the skills to interpret and make meaning of it.
• Being able to know their times tables when they leave primary school, which would clearly make year 6 a barrel of laughs for any child who isn’t able to progress to this with ease (or who is fond of their primary school leadership team).
• Being made to resit tests in year 7 that they couldn’t ‘pass’ in year 6 even if they require specialist, scaffolded, personalised intervention for all of that first year, preferably from a qualified teacher.
• Being subjected to endless learning of ‘knowledge’ in KS3, (possibly not from a specialist teacher due to shortages), coupled with having to try retaining it all in training for their future high-stakes exams.
• Being forced to take subjects that don’t play to their strengths and passions at GCSE, then getting ‘poor’ grades because they can’t remember two years’ worth of content or get it all written down in a two hour exam.
• Being in schools that are underfunded, suffering teacher shortages, lacking decent, co-ordinated welfare support systems and part of a national set up that has seen increasing financial corruption and mismanagement (here’s looking at you, favoured Academy chains, UTCs and Free Schools…)
I could go on. I am horrified at these and most of the other actual and intended policies inflicted by our current government should it remain in power. I despair at schools and children being judged as successful based on a group of subjects they have the arrogance to call an English Baccalaureate. I mourn the years of freedom and creativity that came with specialist schools, a wide range of ‘acceptable’ exam courses and a recognition of the value we truly add to our own communities of learners. I regret that some made it a way of playing the system. I wish we had not had the kicking we have just experienced for the past five years.
Someone asked me the other day if I could see myself trying to be a Headteacher given all of the above (I may have been having a bit of an after-dinner state education warrior rant, we’ve all been there). My immediate response was that no, I couldn’t possibly do what the current government would want me to do because it sat so badly with my own moral compass. Then I remembered and changed my reply immediately to a resounding ‘yes, if they would let me’. I remembered the bright, bright light that I catch a glimpse of daily. The tweets, blogs, articles, journals, publications that are shining through the darkness of the policy fog. The light that shines from
• the Heads that have decided to work together to create alternative curriculum models
• the schools that are peer reviewing to get the clear picture OFSTED can’t provide
• those who are activists in teacher-to-teacher CPD and research, who are tireless in creating opportunities for this to happen
• the partnerships that are doggedly pulling together support around children who need it despite the cuts and bureaucracy
• those who are making more sense of the post-levels apocalypse than any civil servant could dare to imagine
• the swelling numbers pushing for a College of Teaching that is ours, built by us and owned by us, doing what we need it to do
• the senior leaders refusing to be bullied into making children take courses that will brand them failures by working across partnerships to create alternative provision
• those who have to make the budget work yet still hold onto their integrity and values to deliver the education that they and their schools believe in and need
That is the profession and community that I remember before the fog descended. That is the profession I am intensely, ferociously proud of. It is taking back the power and it grows ever-stronger. It will be resilient enough to continue on, whatever the future holds, because political whim will not be strong enough to trample its course, not again. We understand that the gap is not about the approved exam passes, it is about confidence. Our confidence as a profession to do what we know is right for the children in our schools. It is about both them and us having confidence, self-belief, aspiration, resilience and the knowledge of what it truly means to be ‘good’ in life. By taking this pathway, together as a system, we can surely make some difference to the important gaps created in the stability and success of our schools and the social mobility of our students.
As the outcomes of this election become clearer, I urge you, comrades, to take a moment to view the horizon as I have done. We don’t need to wait for the glorious day, it is entirely in our power to be living it now. Whatever the politicians think. I shall be cheering you on.
You can download the Vision 2040 pamphlet here: