Congratulations! Not only did you win an election to Westminster, you’ve now got the cherry on the cake: a place on the most important committee of them all. (I might be a bit biased.)
It’s a great opportunity to access additional expertise and experience to ensure education legislation, guidance, and practice are as good as they can be.
Some of you have been on this committee before. Most haven’t. Some of you have worked on the frontline with young people. Most of you will currently be drawing on little more than your own school experience.
You’ll all want to ask the right questions of the best witnesses and evidence, to ensure the committee’s actions make the biggest difference. Every parent, teacher and edu-geek in England wants this of you too.
And so, as someone with nearly 20 years in state schools, who has had cause to watch the committee in action in recent times, I thought I’d share three thoughts on how you can properly scrutinise education under this government with its huge majority.
Firstly, recognise that looking after and educating children will always be a cause for debate. Arguments are driven by people’s values and these are as varied as people themselves. And like anything else involving people, our sector is full of hunches and opinions dressed up as fact.
Please don’t expect consistency of voice or submissions, or interpret this cacophony for chaos; it’s just a manifestation of those underlying, differing values. And don’t assume loud or confident voices are correct, or that those contributing to your work necessarily represent public opinion.
So secondly, please make extra efforts to seek out a genuine range of opinions as you go about your work. We have experienced a transformation in recent times. People have bypassed the high priests and gatekeepers who previously preserved access to power and knowledge for themselves, but this shift hasn’t fed through to the types of organisations and people feeding into the committee.
Looking after and educating children will always be a cause for debate
I’m sure you’re all committed to diversity, but all too often it’s been easy to rely on the usual sort of unions, academics, business groups, quangos, charities, etc. They have the time and money specifically to employ people to do this, but there are so many more out there who have different views on things and are doing a great job. They don’t have the cash to employ lobbyists, or they’re too busy actually making a difference with kids to get in touch with you. It’s not enough to say that anyone can respond to your calls for evidence. With the committee’s resources and a bit of effort on your part, you could be learning from a tonne of new people.
Finally, recognising the above does not mean that everything is a free-for-all: please put extra effort into differentiating between emotions and evidence, between anecdotes and research. In a limited but growing number of areas there is evidence of which things definitely do work better or worse. Vested interests often try to muddy the waters – but you can see through this if you get properly informed.
Fortunately we’ve had some amazing heavyweight-yet-accessible publications in the past few years that will get you up to speed. Put aside 20 minutes a day and you can quickly get through Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch, Making Good Progress by Daisy Christodoulou, and Tom Bennett’s Creating a Culture.
You can also immunise yourself against the well-meaning but damaging ideas that abound in child development circles like “attachment theory” and “trauma-informed practice”. Nick Rose and the Brookings Institute have both written well on these topics.
So there you have it: expect noisy contributions, seek genuine diversity, and embrace what evidence we have. Through your work you can make better the lives of millions of children, their families, and those who support them. Thank you for your efforts, and good luck!