Conservative Party Conference preview

Each week during the political conference season we will be inviting a commentator to give their views on what education policies they wish to see announced. Will Bickford Smith gives his view ahead of Nick Morgan’s first conference speech as Education Secretary.

There is no government department more greatly applauded, or reviled, than the Department for Education, until recently headed by Michael Gove. Despite some hiccups – performance-related pay, for example, which sounds great in theory but its implementation will be laden with problems – the passion and vision that Gove brought to the role makes him stand out as the pre-eminent education secretary of modern times. The Labour Party now has little to offer other than a slightly watered-down version of his reforms and a vague commitment to making unqualified teachers attain QTS. Autonomy, performance tracking and accountability are here to stay.

When she takes to the stage on Tuesday, I have no doubt that the new education secretary, Nicky Morgan, will heap praise on Gove’s reforms and promise a continuation of the free school programme. She will champion the adoption of Alison Wolf’s core recommendations in her review of vocational education and she will re-emphasise the value that third-sector organisations such as Teach First bring to schools. She’ll restate David Cameron’s desire that every young person leaving school will have the guarantee of an apprenticeship or a university place. But what will be her enduring vision for English schools?

From a teacher’s perspective, Morgan’s real challenge will be to better support teachers to maximise their impact in the classroom. Of course, more free schools need to open (especially in the primary sector where Labour’s lack of planning has created a black hole in school places), but politicians must understand that, ultimately, structural tinkering will not improve what goes on in schools.

So, this is what Morgan should commit to when she steps up to the podium:

Give all teachers a statutory time allowance to undertake external continuing professional development (CPD). Poor CPD provision limits a teacher’s development which, in turn, limits every pupil’s potential.

A firm commitment to developing research-led teaching practice. Teachers are sick of supposed “experts” espousing “best practice” on how they should teach in their class. There is no single “best” way. But there are exciting developments and efforts to professionalise teaching practice – which need to be cultivated.

Morgan’s real challenge will be to better support teachers to maximise their impact in the classroom

A clear policy on non-English speaking pupils. It is ludicrous that pupils with no working knowledge of English can enter mainstream classes. A government with its finger on the pulse would make provision for these pupils to learn English before they learn anything else.

Increased government spending on extra-curricular activities. We fail our students if they leave school with knowledge alone; they need to develop core values of grit, resilience, independence and teamwork.

A new way to tackle misbehaviour. Current rhetoric on high standards in behaviour don’t materialise in schools where headteachers face a quagmire of legal implications for expelling disruptive pupils.

I believe the government should also commit to funding new state boarding schools, run in partnerships with established independent boarding schools. For some young people, the only way to deliver a transformative education is to take them out of their current environment.

The Social Market Foundation’s report on offering a quarter of places at private schools free to the brightest, poorest children, could also offer a way forward.

These ideas, pursued with the same vigour as previous structural reforms, would set English schools down the right track, but perhaps this time with teachers following close behind.




Will Bickford Smith is a politics teacher at an independent boarding school and a Teach First ambassador

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