Opportunity. It was one of the three core themes (alongside Security & Stability) at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this year and it was a word trotted out repeatedly at the many education fringe events that adhered diligently to the direction of travel for education over the past five years.
The focus, unsurprisingly, was on the freedom that exists within the education setting for leaders to innovate and drive positive change across classrooms in England. Opportunity was heralded as creating the best possible time for teachers to be in the profession – the noblest of professions.
There was an unrelenting focus on driving excellence, on taking school performance to new heights and on leaving no hiding place for complacency and sub-standard results. Poverty was not, and would never be, an acceptable reason for variance in educational attainment, we were told.
I doubt any teachers in the land would disagree with the principles – no-one would want children from disadvantaged families to have a sub-standard education, no-one would object to the opportunity to innovate and to think creatively about how schools can best prepare young people for the future. Who could object to a desire to develop strong character in pupils, resilience to all that life will throw at them and to arm them with a toolkit of virtues that allow them to present their best face to the world?
But, what about the opportunity to deliver change at scale? In the past, we have had regional bodies, a Government presence in the North East and an established network of local governance that, setting aside views on their effectiveness, gave a mandate and resource to deliver wider change. In previous Government settings, poor performance was addressed strategically in areas such as London and Manchester with an impact that is reflected in the performance tables each year.
Watching David Cameron pronounce that “local authorities running schools, a thing of the past”, it was evident that a crucial element the Government hasn’t addressed is the infrastructure to deliver change regionally.
SCHOOLS NorthEast has been at the forefront of efforts to deliver a version of a schools challenge, one that sought to leverage the best that a region had to offer to effect positive change in all areas. The hope was to build on the best practice of London and Manchester, while also addressing issues that were unique to the North East.
This is not to say that Local Authorities are the solution to delivering a challenge – albeit they have the statutory duty that provides a mandate and, in the Tees Valley have found a way to deliver school improvement across four LA boundaries – but it begs the question of what other infrastructure exists to catalyse efforts?
Work has been done to consider a ‘Coalition of the Willing’, a movement based on positive intent across schools and supported by the plethora of stakeholders who are invested in seeing the North East as a region achieve step-change improvement.
The context in which the Government has framed education works counter to this. The relentless drive for significant improvement backed by an Ofsted-shaped Sword of Damocles for school leadership teams has created its own problems.
Schools that are excellent are still looking over their shoulders, particularly those that are state maintained and who have no desire to become academies. Those that aren’t considered excellent are left more exposed than ever.
Shrinking budgets, growing pupil numbers, leadership capacity issues and the challenges of curriculum change pressure heads yet further. Where is the time, where is the capacity, where is the funding and where is the infrastructure to take a Challenge-style change programme forward?
The North East Local Enterprise Partnership has tried to address this issue, but its remit cannot extend to school improvement.
Our focus must now be on the rapidly-evolving devolution landscape. Indications to date suggest that the Department for Education has had little engagement with devolution, but it is understood that both of the Combined Authorities (the North East Combined Authority and the Tees Valley Combined Authority) have future skills proposals at the heart of their offer.
SCHOOLS NorthEast is fiercely proud of being a system-agnostic, facilitative network that exists for all schools regardless of size, scope or geography. We will continue to work on behalf of schools to support improvement. We watch the devolution debate with interest and pledge to actively support either or both of the Combined Authorities should they be announced by Government as being successful in their bids.
The Government talks of opportunity. We embrace it. Over to you Mr Cameron.