After the election there will be a lot more trust – academy trusts

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Trust has become a major theme in recent education debate. In this article Graham Birrell argues that despite the benefits it would bring, teachers shouldn’t expect to feel any more trusted post the general election.

US coin with words Liberty 'in God we trust'Teachers. I’ve got a message for you. You aren’t going to like it.

It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, they aren’t going to trust you.

I understand this isn’t what you wanted to hear, especially given the focus the issue of ‘trust’ has had in recent months. But after 27 years of zombifying high accountability/low trust education policies following the 1988 Education Reform Act, there will be no weaning the pols off their diet of reactionary and restrictive measures that have schools in a vice-like grip of control and despair. They are too addicted to the power it gives them – the thought of relinquishing some of this is not one they are going to take particularly seriously. Sure, they’ll talk out about (they may even try and outdo each other with words about it), but the reality is nothing of substance is going to happen.

Freedom and Trust are not the same thing (especially where politicians are concerned)

True, the last five years have seen aspects of freedoms handed over to large numbers of schools – most notably the curriculum and pay freedoms given to academies. Furthermore, there are also a few brave/audacious (delete as appropriate) schools who have charted paths of genuinely daring innovation. However, for all the ‘freedom’ that has allegedly been injected into the system there is one glaring bottom line that means that no state school can be trusted: everyone is permanently 48 hours away from a failed Ofsted with all its implications for school closure or take over and staff exodus. All your curriculum freedoms are fine and dandy, but they count for nothing if you’re struggling to get those ‘progress’ scores up.

Nicky Morgan’s recent speech to the ASCL conference revealed the startling disconnection between what politicians think freedom is and how far it actually is from a system that genuinely trusts its schools. In her eyes, freedom was about schools creating their own assessment system, the establishment of a College of Teaching and the creation of a £5m professional development fund. That’s right folks, a full £5m.

‘The results’ claimed Morgan, ‘of trusting professionals and giving schools greater freedom speak for themselves: we now have 1 million more children in schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than in 2010 and over 100,000 primary school pupils are on track to be more confident readers as a result of our phonics check.’ How ironic that the things Morgan highlights as indicators of the success of ‘freedom’ are the two things that constrain schools the most: tests and the inspection framework.

And this is the freedom that schools and teachers aren’t going to get: the relaxation of the hyper-accountability stranglehold currently killing education. Frankly everything else is fingers in the dam: it’s like putting prisoners in a straightjacket but giving them the freedom to choose what colour it comes in.

We’ve been here before

In case you don’t believe me, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the three major parties’ manifestos in 2010: all three made great play about trust and devolving power. Labour said this should be given to ‘strong school leaders’ (betraying their love affair with macho management) and the Liberal Democrats promised to ‘free schools from the present stranglehold of central government control’ via an ‘Education Freedom Act’ that would ban ‘constant government interference’. However, if there was  an overall theme for the 2010 Conservative manifesto, ‘Trust’ would have to be a contender – it was  mentioned over twenty times and summarised in the foreword: ‘as Conservatives, we trust people. We believe that if people are given more responsibility, they will behave more responsibly. We believe that if you decentralise power, you get better results and better value for money.’

What has followed has been five further years of top-down control and oppression, resulting in a demoralised profession considering their exit optionsa crisis in recruitment, a shortage of Head Teachers and very, very few who believe our education is anything approaching world-class.

A revealing sign of the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality is Morgan’s rejection of an independent body to oversee the content of the national curriculum, with the highly spurious reason given that as politicians are accountable to the electorate they should control what children are taught – seems odd that doesn’t apply when the schools are called ‘academies’.

Three key relationships: what real trust might bring

Trust is an example of the common axiom that politicians say one thing, but do something else. Here’s another one: they say they want a great education system, but what they actually want is personal admiration and accolades. To achieve the latter, I can’t think of a single bigger and better thing Nicky Morgan could do then to actually give schools the freedom and trust they desperately need.

There are three key relationships at play here, illustrated by the following diagram:

Trust or Distrust?

At a whole system level, the obvious example of what might be possible is Finland, but I won’t rehearse the arguments about that here, other than to say that up until the late 1980s they too had a highly centralised system, the dismantling of which was only possible through trusting Head Teachers to run their schools in the way they saw best.

The biggest payoff will happen in the relationships between Head Teachers and teachers and consequently the latter’s relationship with their pupils. I have argued here before about the damage the system has done to the latter – teachers have become automatons as they search for mechanistic ways to get their pupils’ progress scores heading in the right direction.

The evidence for the benefits of trust is increasingly compelling (some literature reviews are here, here and here), but teachers aren’t going to be surprised by this and nor is anyone else – is there any employee in the country who feels the way to get the most out of them is to be constantly spied on and to prove they are competent every six weeks? Reinjecting trust back in the teaching profession will lead to innovation and imagination, as teachers take creative gambles safe in the knowledge that the odd failure won’t be immediately punished.

An alternative manifesto

So what might the next Secretary of State for Education do to genuinely inject trust into the system? Here are seven starters for debate:

  1. Get rid of all accountability measures (especially floor targets) that are based purely on examination results. This is a ridiculously narrow way to measure education: its time is up.
  2. Create an independent education council that all significant education decisions have to be passed through. When I say independent I mean that – the government shouldn’t have a majority of appointments to it.
  3. Remove the threat of hostile take-over and forced academisation. Instead, place all schools in small co-operatives of around 6-10 schools which have mutual accountability. Each set of schools would be responsible for holding one another to account, but doing so through collaboration and co-operation. Each school would be supported and challenged by an external assessor à la point 5.
  4. Take the NAHT up on their idea of a pass/fail inspection system, immediately loosening some of the shackles.
  5. In fact, while you’re at it, replace Ofsted with a local system of peer inspection as I’ve outlined here.
  6. With the help of some of the money saved from no.5 provide funding for every school to appoint a lead on research and innovation, whose job it will be to inject evidence-based risk taking approaches in to the life of their schools.
  7. Provide teachers with 6 days a year, one per term, of extra release time which they must use by visiting other schools to witness innovation in practice.

Although Tristram Hunt has certainly made some interesting noises in the last few weeks, I recognise that some of the above are pretty unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, radical change is needed, so let’s think radically. Tinkering at the edges isn’t going to do it: after all, if you put a rotten apple in a pie and cover it with sugar and pastry, it’s still a rotten apple.

Whatever the colour of the next government, they aren’t going to do (m)any of the above. Whoever wins though, I predict there will be a lot more talk of trust – the academy trust. Both main parties are so wedded to a corporate, neoliberal model of education that neither has the ability to inject the change that is needed – perhaps that’s why no-one trusts them.

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