Let me dispense with the suspense from the outset: a ten-year plan for education is not only necessary, it’s absolutely do-able. The problem for frustrated professional organisations and ambitious policymakers alike is that being ‘vision-led’ won’t deliver it.
It’s easy to convince ourselves we have the answer; if only others shared our vision, we could revolutionise young people’s lives! That kind of thinking makes it easy to dismiss failure as someone else’s fault, but it misses the important and unavoidable fact that practical solutions rarely work first time ‘in the wild’.
In my experience, it takes years to get a new solution ready for prime-time. We can do a pilot; get an efficacy study. Phew, job done, right? Well, no. The solution still needs to be refined in a range of contexts that differ from the pilot. There may be supportive leadership at the pilot site, but the solution also needs to work where leadership is focused on other things. We must build new processes so the solution can be rolled out at a reasonable cost. And build a team. All in all, a successful pilot only gets you about a quarter of the journey to your destination.
There’s no shortcut for these cycles of trial and refinement. Without them, we invariably roll out a solution that simply isn’t ready, and that is not only hugely wasteful of people’s time and public money, but consumes all the capacity in the system for effective change. No wonder the profession is strung out, and wary of unwanted change.
For example: are T Levels the right way to go? We don’t know because they haven’t proven themselves yet. And we don’t have alternatives with which to compare them.
Being vision-led is a form of top-down thinking, where solutions are guessed at and imposed on others. Instead, we need to learn from other sectors where innovation has worked. The key to success is to have multiple groups working with the profession from the bottom up, identifying opportunities and co-creating solutions. Lots of them.
Trying to innovate through single, system-wide solutions is nonsense. It’s much easier to know the best way forward when there are lots of good solutions to pick from and clearly signposted failures to avoid. It’s the difference between plotting a route on an atlas and using an up-to-date satnav to adapt your travel plans as you go.
Take academisation. Six years ago, the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper was roundly dismissed. Its singular vision simply wasn’t practical or practicable enough. Last month’s schools white paper was more positively received. Its vision of full academisation is the same. The key difference is that solutions have been tried – some successfully and some less so. The result is not only a more amenable profession, but also policymakers who are more aware of past errors and practical challenges.
Creating a ten-year plan for education is a fantastic idea, not least because it offers the tantalising prospect of stability after such a disrupted few years. But while there may be an appetite for a clearer vision as part of long-term planning in education, this isn’t a realistic expectation and it would be a mistake for any party to base its platform on one.
Instead, we should use a ten-year plan to create conditions for change in which everyone can play a part. Innovation isn’t easy in any field, and in education we have a particularly hostile environment at the moment. That needs to change before we can believe in any vision.
But if we replace idealism with pragmatism and enable new solutions to bubble up to the surface, we can reset our expectations of what vision means and looks like – and truly revolutionise education.