A few weeks back there was a lot of noise on Twitter about “the Heads’ Roundtable”, a group of headteachers who, in collaboration with the Guardian and Fiona Millar, were attempting to influence education policy.
Their 6 mains suggestions are here and, I think, need a little consideration and scrutiny.
1) Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving specific grades and levels in examinations and tests respectively;
This is not an outrageous suggestion, beyond the fact that, thanks to OFSTED, there is a system of assessing schools that already does this. Either they are asking for something which already exists, or they are actually requesting a change of some description. There are numerous problems with both the exams and how the data produced from them is used to hold schools to account. However, there is little to be said for allowing schools to get away with appalling exam results. Without more detail as to what is to change this point on the list means little. However, it is noticeable that this is a message which may be most appealing to the leaders of under-performing schools and those who want schools to be completely unaccountable for poor exam results..
2) Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve;
There’s a lot wrong with OFSTED. Even now, with Si Michael Wilshaw signalling that he no longer requires every classroom to be organised along the lines of a progressive primary school from the 1970s, schools are still tying themselves up in knots working out what nonsense to impose on teachers in the hope that it would appease the dark gods of OFSTED. However, of all the things wrong with OFSTED, the least plausible is that it isn’t “local”. Too much regulation from an unaccountable regulator is certainly a problem, but it is unfathomable why anyone would think the situation would be improved if there were 100s of regulators all doing their own thing, without even the need to be consistent with a national framework in their interference. There seems little possible argument for this, other than the possibility that headteachers, particularly those who don’t stand out from the crowd, may have more clout to influence the decisions of a local partnership. Again this is a policy where the most obvious appeal would be to those wanting to reduce the pressure on the most mediocre of schools, so that they merely had to keep a local “partner” sweet rather than expect to be held accountable for manifest failures. It also seems a little vague about what a “local partnership” is. The danger here is that by making accountability more “local” it is actually just being reduced.
3) The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years);
Of all the suggestions this one, based as it is on the idea of abolishing democracy, is most indefensible. As long as taxpayers money is spent on education then the principle of “no taxation without representation” demands that this spending is under democratic control. People are often cynical about politicians, but let’s be clear, the alternative to control by the elected is not independence, it is control by the unelected. It is not the removal of politics (these issues will always be political) it is the removal of democracy. The content of the curriculum and the method of assessment, is not a technical matter. It covers issues where people have views based on their values and while no system exists whereby policy can simply reflect public opinion, we should expect that those exercising power in this area can, if necessary, be directly or indirectly removed by voters. The idea of dictators spending our money, declaring which values are correct, is transparently wrong. It is of appeal only to those who are so twisted by ideology that they cannot accept that dissent is legitimate, let alone a human right. When I’ve argued with people about this they tend to follow two strategies. Sometimes they attack existing arrangements as not sufficiently democratic, a classic tactic of those advocating a removal of democracy, but obviously no justification fro having even less democracy. At other times they have a habit of saying “well it’s just the same as X” where X is some policy, e.g. independence of the bank of England, that doesn’t actually seem the same at all. What makes the argument pointless is that if you did convince me that abolishing democratic accountability in education was the same as policy X, then it would make me oppose policy X, not accept dictatorship in education. And, once again, what we see proposed here is the idea of reduced accountability.
4) The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains;
We have a policy which seems a bit of a mystery. What’s the advantage of local chains over national chains? Why can’t we have both? Again, it seems to be a policy where the immediate appeal is to limit the extent to which power over education is exercised by anybody beyond some unidentified local arrangement (presumably the “local partnership” mentioned previously). Again, the agenda seems to be to reduce, or at least “localise” accountability.
5) “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve;
I’ve discussed this previously. There is a problem with norm referencing if achievement is genuinely improving. There is no good reason to think this is the situation at the moment, so it is hard to see what the problem is. The suspicion must be that what they are actually arguing for is grade inflation, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
6) School accountability measures should encourage collaboration betweens [sic] schools and explicitly develop systems leadership.
This suggestion is one of the oddest. Collaboration may well be desirable, but it is hard to see what it has to do with accountability. Again this seems to be little more a call for greater influence for some local power structure. But it is still not being spelt out.
If I had to interpret the 6 points, they all seem to be about reducing accountability of schools. This is not without appeal at times, when accountability is done in harmful ways. However, where democracy is to be removed entirely it is reprehensible. Where all remaining accountability is to be made “local” then, while that’s not necessarily wrong in principle, they do need to put forward something considerably less vague, otherwise the most obvious interpretation is that they are simply pushing for a situation where all heads need to do is satisfy some local education bureaucracy, rather than provide an acceptable level of education for their students.
Thanks to @daisychristo for suggesting the title of this blogpost. I was planning to go with “Why the heads of the roundtable can stick their 6 point plan up their arses”.