Guest Blog: The problem of policy pass the parcel

laura-cutout.jpgAnd so we enter the baton-passing stage of schools policy. Some of you in schools face the same thing as you edge toward the end of term. You, or someone else you work with, is due to move on. Cue the scrambling to tie up loose ends, the passing on of key information, the hiding of dead bodies (unmarked work). It’s exhausting stuff and inevitably some things get missed. Next term someone is bound to find a locked drawer, with no key, in which – unbeknownst to them – the coursework of 6B lurks.

Education politicians have the same problem. Since realising they were likely to be displaced from office earlier this week, activity has been frenetic. Expert reports have fallen from the sky. A new maths programme launched. Speeches delivered everywhere. It’s incredible how a department struggling to answer its email and information requests on time can pull a year’s worth of work in one week when the mind is concentrated. Almost makes you believe they could hurry up with other policies, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, schools are caught in the middle of this pass over between old and new ministers. The national funding formula consultation is already delayed, no one knows for how long. The primary tests are an admitted fudge with Nicky Morgan last week saying no one should make judgments from them about the Government’s capability. (They will still be used to judge schools, of course). And let’s not get into GCSE reform, A-level issues, school rebrokering, coasting schools, British values.

This mess of course means it’s a brilliant time to bring in an entirely new set of people, right? Sigh.

It all reminds me of the Masterchef episode where contestants are made to take part in a ‘relay race’. Working in teams of four, each group must make a meal from a selection of ingredients. The first cook has ten minutes, the next has the same, and so on. In some series the cooks have a 10-second handover, where they frantically yell at each other and wave hands over half-swirled sauces. In other versions, they can’t speak at all. Oh the fun as a new chef walks in only to find pots bubbling over, items in the oven with no timer on them and an unidentified meat half chopped on a counter.

Most chefs panic when faced with this melee of items. They turned the pan down, open the oven, start chopping, never knowing what anything is or if they are making a crucial mistake.

The sensible chefs, don’t. They take time to work out what is going on. If things can be saved, they work tooth and nail to save them. If they can’t figure out what the heck is going on, they make new choices. In one case, where the chef before had made spectacular cock-ups, the panicked contestant, Georgia, scrapped the entire work that had gone ahead of her and made a fried prawn salad in the 10 minutes she had left and saved her team from being the worst.

There is a crucial lesson in Georgia’s actions. Ministers have a tendency to either let terrible policies limp on, out of blind loyalty to the people who came before, or to take a hammer to everything, however good (or saveable) it was and without thought to what will come next. Georgia’s approach: carefully surveying, figuring out what she had, and coming up with a new plan through, is what helped her win out.

Surveying the education landscape, any new education minister would do well to scrap the obviously burned bits (the primary tests), improve the saveable stuff (academies policy and GCSE reform), and come up with some entirely new plans and deadlines – particular around funding.

If they can do this over the summer, and greet schools back in September with a clear vision and a timetable for what is happening next, then school leaders, pupils and parents will be saved from the affing and faffing of a horrible relay race.

As I write this Justine Greening has now been appointed as the new education secretary. We can only pray she will take her time before deciding what to do next.

Laura McInerney, Editor of Schools Week

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