Changing Schools: Perspectives on five years of education reform

This slim collection of essays on recent changes to “the educational landscape” should be read by everyone interested in schools. However, stimulating though Changing Schools is, the “perspectives” offered form a rather one-sided view of reform.

I agree with much that is said, but I would have welcomed some dissonant voices who argue that the changes set in motion by Andrew Adonis and then by Michael Gove, have not raised standards. I also question whether some of the changes can really be the result of political reform.

If one word links these essays, it is “autonomy”. In one of the strongest pieces, James O’Shaughnessey gives a condensed guide to how this concept has dominated debate over the past 15 years.

For him England’s school system has been transformed into a “classic public sector market” where “consumers” (parents and children) are given real choice, and it is academisation that has driven this change.

But has this process worked? For O’Shaughnessey, the evidence is “mixed”, or it is too early to say. It is here that another view would have been welcome.

Two of the most fascinating essays are on qualifications and assessment by, respectively, Tina Isaacs and Daisy Christodoulou. Isaacs is excellent on the need for national tests to be focused more on student accountability and progress.

But it was Christodoulou’s essay, which explains the innate flaws of our national exams, that should be mandatory reading. It is a clear-sighted and balanced view of why our assessments models are distorting teaching and learning, and what can be done about it.

Of course, saying something should be done is easier than doing it, and each of these essays, in their own way, discusses how difficult it is to reform systems and ensure these changes stick.

Raising standards so that every school is good or outstanding, especially in a system that seems so determined to embrace different levels of autonomy, is probably impossible. And even if such standards are achieved in a group of schools, it can often be difficult to scale beyond this: Jonathan Simons explores this, brilliantly, on a national level. And Katharine Birbalsingh does so in perhaps the most idiosyncratic and idealistic essay of them all.

As I read it I found myself asking: why would she be “worried” if she saw lesson plans in a classroom? Is she really against anything “whizzy” in her school? And does nobody really ever swear?

Birbalsingh’s passion for her pupils shines through when she lists what her school stands for (and against). But with such a prescriptive list of “do’s and don’ts”, can her staff “embrace the autonomy they are given, and run with it”? Presumably only until they plan a lesson or try something whizzy.

They might have got that whizziness from Twitter, or found some new ideas on a blog. It is here, on social media, where there has been radical – and unplanned – reform, by teachers for teachers.

And although government policies undoubtedly changed schools, a deeper, cultural change – fuelled by online discussions and made real through a huge appetite to learn from each other – has revolutionised how many teachers see themselves and their profession.

Andrew Old’s evaluation of the influence of Twitter and blogging acknowledges how unrepresentative of all schools the “teaching Twitterati” has become, while Tom Bennett’s intelligent evaluation of teacher training and professionalism explores fundamentally important areas, and sends out a timely warning about the possibility of (yet another) missed opportunity to create a professional body that has the integrity and muscle to represent the profession.

In his postscript Robert Peal asserts, rather boldly in my view, that school autonomy is “real and here to stay”.

First, as these essays show, one person’s autonomy is another’s prison; second, forever is a long time.

But these are minor quibbles.

What is here to stay (I hope) is a profession increasingly prepared to stand up for itself, and to challenge those who do not know much about teaching but certainly have a view on how teachers should teach and what students should learn.

Simons says it better than I can when he writes that: “if a school-led system means anything, it must mean solutions emerging from collective discussion rather than from Whitehall”. This excellent book is an important contribution to that discussion.

@drdavidajames