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It’s time to trust schools

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Dear Sam

Your defence of the status quo seems to be straight out the TINA handbook, so following on from your suggestion I’m very happy to move our conversation on to some alternatives.

This is a pretty basic, but fairly useful visual summary of what’s wrong with government’s relationship with education:



As I’ve outlined elsewhere, this causes some fundamentally corrosive damage. To change this won’t involve tinkering – what we need is a complete rethink on what schools are for and how we treat them.

Firstly, we need to decide what’s important to account for in the first place. At the moment this appears to be almost entirely about narrow definitions of academic success, particularly in english and maths, measured by notoriously poor diagnostic devices. I’d like to throw in a few more objectives, such as working with others, independent thinking, motivation, well being. I certainly wouldn’t get rid of academic achievement, but it should be so much more. For example, a good place to start could be the aims outlined by the Cambridge Primary Review.

Then we need to think about how we decide if schools are meeting these aspirations. You said that no-one has suggested a viable alternative, but this really isnt true; even a quick glance can find plenty of extremely able people have, e.g. here, here and here. Some of their suggestions are:

  • As I’ve said above, keep academic success as an indicator of school success, but make it just one of many indicators.
  • Focus on incentivising teachers and schools to do well, not punishment for doing badly. That doesn’t mean more pay, but instead create cultures where innovation, mutuality and teacher enquiry are encouraged and rewarded.
  • Sample schools. You don’t need data from every school, every year, thus relaxing the constant need for ‘data churn’.
  • Use a range of diagnostic assessment tools to measure success.
  • Use qualitative data as well as quantitative data as part of the process.
  • Replace ‘seek and destroy’ tactics with investment in supporting all schools and teachers to improve.

group preparing to catch falling personTo achieve this the government needs to use a lot more carrot and a lot less stick. A belief that you can force schools to improve leads directly to a culture where you demand that they do and punish if they don’t, e.g. what we have now. This is punitive, unhelpful and worryingly unhealthy. Governments need to let go of the command and control model and replace it with a faith and respect model. I know that sounds like a fluffy bunny, but here’s a specific example which also shows how the bunny can have teeth.

As currently formulated, Ofsted can have no role in what I’ve outlined. Replace it with a local inspectorate, which can include full time expert assessors, plus teachers and head teachers from the area and also community leaders and parents. The local inspectorate should hold the schools in their area to account on the sorts of issues discussed above, but a second role would be to support the schools in raising their games. It wouldn’t be about snap judgements but schools working with the same sets of critical friends year in year out. A culture should be created where schools and teachers who are failing would be supported, not instantly removed; however, after all avenues of support have been tried, there would need to be changes in personnel.

The local inspectorates themselves would be held to account through a national body that ensures the appropriate level of support and critique is being offered. Now there’s a thought, I’m offering more accountability here – after all, who currently inspects the inspectors?

The glue that binds together the above is trust and time. Schools should be freed from knee-jerk political quick fixes and given time to develop. Teachers should be assumed to be good or better until they prove otherwise. This is a radical difference to where we are now, where schools are forever having to prove they have a right to exist and to show how they are immediately reacting to the latest government whim.

The ‘trust and time’ culture has been carefully built in to the Finnish system and is regarded as one of the key reasons for its success. Interestingly, some colleagues of mine went to Finland recently and asked a head teacher how his school was held accountable to the government – he didn’t even know what the question meant. It wasn’t a translation issue, it was just a language difference of an entirely different kind.

So I think I’ve done what you asked – to get specific on how I would hold schools to account. I’ve offered some theortical and practical ways that I believe could lead to some significant improvements. Now I’d like to offer you a challenge.

I believe that successive governments have placed a rigid accountability model on schools because they want to build power and control. To trust schools means releasing some of this. What drives this is an enjoyment of exercising power, but also a fear of what might happen if they don’t have it.

Can you convince me that I’m wrong? I think governments are genuine about wanting to raise standards, but what is really stopping them trusting schools to do this?

Best wishes,


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4 Responses to It’s time to trust schools

  1. Andy Bloor
    Andy Bloor Tuesday, 17 September 2013 at 08:15 #

    As I believe David Blunkett was once advised ‘Don’t back off from Teachers: run in the opposite direction.’

    Teaching is a ‘profession’ when we want to praise teachers but a ‘craft’ when we try to describe them and make teaching look easy. A mantra is developing that says ‘If you’ve got a good degree you can teach. Bit of training and that’s it.’ Personally, I believe good teachers need good subject knowledge AND good pedagogical knowledge as seen in many HEIs and most notably in Teach First.

    What initiatives such as Teach First should be showing us as a profession is that teaching can be high status. But as soon as people expecting a profession come into a realm where teaching is reduced from levels of accountability to levels of micro-management, there will exist a tension: professionals are trusted and given autonomy, so if we don’t have that what are we?

  2. Simon Tuesday, 17 September 2013 at 22:30 #

    Having just now started my route in to Primary Education (via a PGCE) I feel I should offer a new-comers perspective.

    Entering in to this profession (and I deliberately use that term) I find that part of me does actually crave some “narrow definitions of academic success” this comes from a need to understand my own progress and quantify this.

    I dream of being able to say to my visiting tutors “Look, here are all the sub-levels achieved on my watch, that’s good, right?”

    Looking at current policy, as well as some of the debate here, and drawing a straight line into the future, my future, I can see myself needing to justify my place in a classroom (and my wage), to prove in a scientific way that I am good at what I do.

    This disturbs me.

    I do not want to be focused in such a way, I do not want to see my pupils as numbers in a progress grid. In an ideal world I would love to be able to say “Yes, little Johnny hasn’t gained a reading level but look how he works with his peers now. See this wonderful artwork he produced when just last term he told me ‘art is for girly-girls’…”

    I’ve spent some time as a 1-1 Teaching Assistant; my first pupil did not, in the 10 months I worked with him, make any academic improvements. With his situation it was never really going to happen but… with my support, he ceased being excluded, he joined a sports club, he made new friends and he challenged his own position within the school, home and society.

    That counts for something, it has to. Why don’t we recognise it?

    I recognise my need to feel like I am progressing, I’m sure a lot of other professionals and schools may feel the same way. What I don’t want is to feel threatened by the process that gives me the feedback I require to reflect upon and improve my work.

    Were I in a position where I feel I am trusted and where I also have an accessible and supporting network for measurement and improvement (such as a professional body) then maybe I could really thrive.

    When a Teacher thrives I’m pretty certain their pupils do too.


  3. JFB Tuesday, 15 October 2013 at 09:52 #

    My brother is an airline pilot, he is trusted but he also tested every 3 months for 12 hours in a simulator, if he fails he is not allowed to fly. All professions are trusted but are also monitored for competency.

  4. Graham Birrell
    Graham Birrell Tuesday, 22 October 2013 at 16:57 #

    JFB – I totally agree that teachers should continue to be monitored (although I don’t like that word as it gives the impression that the assumption is about being ‘checked’, so I think supported is a more positive way of thinking about it).

    My concern is that the hyper-accountability culture has led to a situation where very few (any?)schools are actually trusted that they hold enough professional knowledge and understanding to be able to move significantly beyond the straightjacket that they operate under. I definitely think that schools should (like airline pilots) meet minimum expectations, which is one reason why I think its vital that all teachers hold QTS.

    I think it’s a mindset – at the minute few schools feel they can do anything that risks the bottom line – the test scores. If schools were released from the straightjacket and trusted a little more, than they may be able to get on with a richer form of education.

    The system is currently driven by fear – the politicians are fearful of facing the public if results go down, schools are fearful of facing Ofsted if results go down, teachers are fearful of facing SLT if their results go down, and at the bottom are pupils, who have to deal with the consequences – teaching often based more on results than on a liberating and challenging form of education.

    This seems an entirely poor way to run an education system. A far more positive system is one based on trust, where schools are encouraged to innovate. Of course this carries risks, but without taking risks we condemn ourselves to the ordinary.