Will everything really calm down after Gove?July 18, 2014
I was quoted in an article in the TES today:
Academies became a fixture of the school landscape under Mr Gove, with around 60 per cent of secondaries now independent of local authorities and the number of primary academies still growing. Free schools, too, are proliferating, and changes to league tables and accountability measures in general will continue. Newer reforms that are yet to be formalised, such as those to initial teacher training, appear more vulnerable to being watered down or shelved.
Not all teachers are in favour of a period of calm, however. Education blogger and classroom teacher Andrew Old said Ms Morgan should explore the reforms to teacher training, although he doubted that the changes would ultimately happen.
“The whole education bureaucracy is so complex; unless a politician has been paying attention for a very long time it is impossible for it not to fall apart”, Mr Old added. “The same happened after David Blunkett left [in 2001]. One policy after another slowly gets replaced, people in certain jobs change and there is just a return to the normal routine of what they’ve always done.”
There does seem to be a remarkable consensus in comments on education politics around the belief (which I expressed myself last time) that in replacing Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan there is an attempt to quieten down the controversy over education and avoid the confrontation that inevitably results from having a minister ploughing onwards with his own project over many years. Not everyone agrees with me that this will cause a backwards shift. I may have been unduly pessimistic about the chances of a wholesale change of direction, given that Nick Gibb has returned as a junior minister.
However, I do not believe that it is possible to have a stable period in education. The education system is too complex and has too many players. Change has become normal in education, even when the politicians seem to be showing little initiative. The bureaucrats and the establishment figures in the system will always want to dismantle changes, and to make new ones of their own.
On top of that, there are plenty of issues that are about to flare up that would try any politician, particularly one newly in place. Here’s where I think controversy will still occur.
1) The requirements for some of the new GCSEs have been interpreted by the exam boards in remarkably counter-intuitive ways. The greater breadth asked for in English literature appears to have resulted in fewer set texts. The newer emphasis on fluency in maths has not prevented every exam board from opting for an overwhelming emphasis on calculator exams. Ofqual will need to confront the exam boards over any attempt to ignore the broad requirements of the new exams, while complying with only small details. Rumours are flying that they have already acted, but the regulator is likely to need the support of the politicians.
2) Schools are in a panic about assessment. While private schools seemed to manage to assess without levels, they also had a far more sympathetic regulator. Nobody knows what OFSTED want regarding assessment, so schools are terrified to make decisions about assessment. This is a particular problem for free schools with no historical results to be judged by, and academies who are not being judged on their historical results, only results since conversion. I despaired when Tristram Hunt started saying Labour would support a return to levels; but without some guidance from the DfE or OFSTED about what is or isn’t acceptable, this will become more of an issue.
3) Speaking of OFSTED, it’s not gone away. A new Civitas report out today raises some of the issues with it, particularly the extent to which the OFSTED teaching and learning grade guarantees that schools will continue to teach according to the “OFSTED teaching style”. But beyond that, Wilshaw’s attempts to reform it have served mainly to expose its faults. OFSTED decisions seem arbitrary and unaccountable. School leaders have lost respect for it. It is locked into a number of changes, the biggest being the end of the use of private contractors next year. Gove was good at driving reform in OFSTED, possibly a bit too good at it to have good relationships with its leadership. The new secretary of state will need to make it clear what she wants.
4) There is a review being undertaken of Initial Teacher Training that will report back before the end of the year. I’d be surprised if a review set up by Gove will come back with anything that isn’t controversial and requires action. Possible teacher shortages will make it even more important that decisions are taken. However, this has come up as it is at the absolute heart of the influence of the education establishment. The only real options here are likely to be Gove-style civil war with the educationalists, or an act of appeasement which will ensure that new teachers are still being trained by the same old people.
5) Trojan Horse. This is just a mess and it won’t go away. Everybody is convinced that it confirms the political views they already held. Every report will make completely different recommendations and blame different people. Everybody will demand action. It’s too late for anything to be resolved in a positive way, but it will be absolutely vital that government doesn’t get brow-beaten into doing something really silly that will create more hassle for all schools. In particular, curriculum changes (perhaps around citizenship) or greater powers for OFSTED to intervene could be a huge step backwards.
If there aren’t political rows about most of these issues in the next 12 months I’d be surprised. I haven’t included the possibility of a major fuss over exam results, because schools have been warned about surprises. However, if the new secretary of state shows any weakness in the face of complaints about exam results, then there could be another concerted effort to push her and Ofqual to accept a return to the old days of grade inflation.