Skip to content
Society, Politics & Law

Memo to Nicky Morgan: Welcome back, now leave schools alone

Updated Tuesday 12th May 2015

Nicky Morgan has returned as Secretary Of State For Education in the new cabinet. It's an opportunity, says Jacqueline Baxter, to try leaving other aspects of education untouched.

Various players on the pitch kick around a political football Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license As some players leave the field, will education remain a political football? Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers has urged head teachers to take control of their own destiny. Speaking at the union’s annual conference he encouraged heads to join their schools together to alleviate the desperate shortage of qualified teachers and the impending explosion of pupil numbers.

The new government inherits an education system that is creaking under the strain of largely inept political meddling. There are 5,000 fewer recruits to teacher training programmes for September 2015 in the face of an impending dramatic rise in pupil numbers. They will both enter an education system with few accountability mechanisms and no let-up in the level of economic cuts for the next five years.

Schools joining together – collaborating across phases, sharing teachers and being governed by a single governing body – makes sense. Research carried out by Glasgow’s Chris Chapman and colleagues has shown that there is much to be gained by collaboration between schools – particularly when schools themselves choose to federate.

His research has pointed out that collaboration across phases and age groups – between infant, middle and upper schools for example – gives the kind of continuity for students and teachers that is lacking in so many single school structures. Schools that join together like this work for the benefit of the community, pooling resources and providing invaluable support networks – particularly in areas of high deprivation.

In my own research, I’ve spoken to governors working in federations – groups of schools governed by a single governing body – who have outlined some of the benefits of governing in such a system. They point to the cohesion that it provides for pupils and parents and the ability for governing bodies to succession plan. As one governor put it: “It makes sense – you start with the local – the single school – build your knowledge that way, then apply it in the wider context of the federation.”

Given the difficulties that many schools are having in recruiting governors – and the rapid rate of turnover experienced by a number of school governing bodies – a reliable form of succession planning is increasingly important. This particularly the case in light of the diminishing accountability function of Local Education Authorities and threat of cuts to the education budgets.

Competition comes with a cost

The last government’s emphasis on competition rather than collaboration between schools – an ideology backed up by right wing think tanks – has in many cases pitted schools against one another in the fight to recruit the brightest and best pupils. This has left other schools struggling to survive, with low pupil numbers and staff shortages – who wants to work in a school under threat of closure?

This ideology of competition underpinned by freedom of school choice began under Thatcher and was taken up with zeal by every government since then. It has acquired a life of its own, being vaunted at every turn by politicians who lionise it as a solution to all educational ills.

But this so-called choice, like most forms of freedom, comes with a cost. School failures are rarely out of the headlines. But when the news dies down we rarely hear about the fate of the pupils who are then scattered around which ever local school will have them. Some choice.

Competition also stifles professional development and staff learning – a vital element of any public service. As one teacher told me:

Who’s going to share good practice if that very practice is what makes one school better than another – at the end of the day, it might well be the thing that makes the difference between our school staying open while the one down the road closes.

Putting policy into practice

In this general election campaign, we’ve been presented with summaries of what the parties intend for education – a list of high-flying ideals with little substance on how they will be implemented. Yet the politics of policy implementation has always presented problems for politicians. Former prime minister Tony Blair wrote in his autobiography:

At points I wanted to give up everything else and just spend days on the front line learning what it was like to manage a service, what its real pressures were, what could be done within the conventional parameters and how the parameters might be changed.

It is a common criticism – and one of the reasons for public disillusionment with our education system – that many politicians have little experience beyond the closeted world of politics. Far away from the comforts of Whitehall, a few hours walking in the shoes of those who have to implement the latest ideologically motivated idea would be a salient lesson for a group whose policies often appear mercurial and incomprehensible to the general public and the professions whose lives they will so deeply affect.

The teaching profession has had to put up with interference that would never be tolerated by any other. Quick fixes and gimmicks have promised to return education to an elusive “halcyon day” when all was rosy in the garden. Policy ideas have at time seemed founded in the sound belief that turning out happy, well-adjusted students is like manufacturing baked beans. And there has been a conviction that all will be well if we apply market principles to education. Offer a tantalising illusion of choice – for as we have seen, an illusion is all that it is – and when things do go wrong, ensure that the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the parents who made that choice in the first place.

For far too long education has been played like political football, subjected to the vagaries of ministerial whim. The profession and its public sector ethos has been derided by politicians who subscribe to the anachronistic belief that teaching is still driven by “producer interest” - that schools are driven by their own interests rather than those of parents and pupils.

Until the teaching profession takes the initiative and forms a powerful body that can transcend the electoral cycle, education will never be governed by well thought-through, evidence-based, joined up policies that would lead to a democratic and equable education system for all.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter is Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University. She was writing before David Cameron announced details of his first non-coalition cabinet.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

What's the problem with the government's plans for our schools? Creative commons image Icon Number10.gov.uk under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license article icon

Education & Development 

What's the problem with the government's plans for our schools?

A new report suggests that schools planning has become hard to make sense of. The OU's Jacqueline Baxter shares a personal view of the state schools are in.

Article
Debate: What can British schools learn from the Chinese education system? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Yurijj77 info | Dreamstime.com article icon

Education & Development 

Debate: What can British schools learn from the Chinese education system?

Is there anything British schools can learn from the Chinese education system? Join in the debate. 

Article
A brief introduction to the Chinese education system Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com article icon

Education & Development 

A brief introduction to the Chinese education system

This article outlines the structure of the Chinese education system and the study hours expected at a Chinese school. 

Article
Trojan Horse: Snap school inspections will not solve wider governance issues Creative commons image Icon Hugo Pereira under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Trojan Horse: Snap school inspections will not solve wider governance issues

In June 2014 inspection reports on 21 schools in Birmingham accused of involvement in the “Trojan Horse” affair over alleged Islamic extremism were released. 

Article
Without fear or favour? School inspection in turbulent times Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Without fear or favour? School inspection in turbulent times

The case of Park View School raises questions about Ofsted's independence, writes the OU's Jacqueline Baxter.

Article
World Class Films - Bosnia: Two schools under one roof Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC / OU video icon

Education & Development 

World Class Films - Bosnia: Two schools under one roof

As the Bosnian government seeks to reintergrate education after the war of the 1990s, Two Schools Under One Roof is a first step.

Video
5 mins
Schooling for displaced children Creative commons image Icon exlux under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Schooling for displaced children

Providing quality education for displaced Iraqi and Palestinian children can pose real challenges.

Article
Chinese education: How do things work? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Chinese education: How do things work?

Chinese School provides a fascinating insight into the Chinese education system. Here, we provide some background to the stories.

Article
A Chinese education Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Alison Beale article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

A Chinese education

How does the Chinese system organise itself? As you might expect, there's a fairly firmly defined structure.

Article