Education reform: How to take back control of schools from government

The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.” John Dunning, motion in Parliament, 1780.

For those working in education, it won’t have taken the act of self-immolation of June 23 to notice a growing feeling of powerlessness and mute rage in the face of an over-centralised, over-mighty state that seems neither to listen nor to hear; making barely comprehensible decisions for which it is barely accountable.

a feeling of mute rage in the face of an over-mighty state

In 1976, James Callaghan took the unprecedented step for a prime minister of giving a speech about education. He devoted much of it to defending himself against critics who felt that politicians ought not to discuss schooling at all. Its manipulation as a tool of social control by the totalitarian regimes that had brought the world to disaster in the previous generation was a still fresh memory.

Forty years on, the state’s role is transformed. David Laws, the former schools minister, captures it compellingly: “The thing is that we’ve created… an amazingly responsive system where the stakes are so high … that with frightening speed, once you change one of these things … within 24 hours … you’ve got heads writing to parents saying, ‘Next year you’re going to have to study a totally different range of subjects’.”

There are at least four things wrong with this. First, as Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek demonstrated, the problem of information asymmetry makes this form of “central planning by performance indicators” (Onora O’Neill) impossible to do well. The centre can never have information as good as that on the periphery.

Second, the problem of perverse incentives is not a problem of some particular indicator but an inherent problem with indicators. Growing use of ECDL and the three-year key stage 4 are just two current manifestations. Over years of shifting targets, leaders increasingly internalised the idea that doing well in government measures is identical to doing right – the problem of “governmentality”.

“Theory X” managers believe that workers are lazy and dislike responsibility

Third, the problem of “shifting tectonic plates”. Some aspects of the system (curriculum, qualifications, accountability, funding, teacher training) are so fundamental that any change should be approached with great care. Change demands so much attention that it carries significant opportunity cost in reduced focus on improving classroom practice. Yet central government finds such change impossible to resist.

Fourth, policy thinking is based on a deficient theory of motivation. Douglas McGregor famously distinguished “Theory X” managers (who believe that workers are lazy, dislike responsibility and respond only to clear sanctions and rewards) from “Theory Y” managers (who believe that workers are intrinsically motivated, want responsibility and find self-development in their work). Under successive governments “Theory X” has predominated.

So, what needs to happen?

“Theory Y” policymaking would be a start. If the purpose of school reform is that more teachers succeed with more children in more classrooms, some obvious points emerge.

Growing the capacity and capability of the profession is critical. Today’s most able graduates want work to provide meaning, self-expression and participation in decision-making.

Today’s most able graduates want work to provide meaning

Policy should aim not to crowd out discretionary effort. Beginning from clear and meaningful vision rather than from deficit is vital. Relationships in the working environment matter too: policies too often promote instrumental and mechanistic views of the managerial relationship.

We need to balance problem-solving and appreciative enquiry. Problem-solving is sometimes necessary, but difficult and energy-consuming. Appreciative enquiry (taking what is good and exploring ways to extend and deepen it) is energy-creating – and energy more than time is in short supply.

Accountability for what you do and achieve is important. But real and meaningful accountability is not just “arms-length” and not just about the numbers (though it is about the numbers).

Unrealistic? Then consider London Challenge: the most successful if most misunderstood school improvement policy of recent years – and based on Theory Y thinking.

Meanwhile, what can we do? Well, for a start throw our weight behind the College of Teaching. Because our profession is so institutionally weak that we don’t control our own entry standards; cannot set out expectations for early professional development that equate with other professions; cannot stand up for the evidence when powerful voices seek to promote other agendas.

With a stronger professional body, we can mitigate the effects of government power, however public policy develops. You could call it “taking back control”.

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  1. Jocelyn Heyes

    The actual facts are very simple: the Labour government of 1997-2010 doubled spending on schools in real terms (they didn’t double education spending overall – but they did, as stated double sending on schools) – and this period of time coincided with a dramatic fall in our position in the PISA tables. Michael Gove has arrested this decline without a big increase in spending.

    Making teachers comfortable and secure doesn’t bring about improvements. When we can afford to, what we need to do is replace the current teachers with graduates with good degrees who will bring about the big improvement in education that we need. In the meantime, we can make some progress by continuing to improve transparency, and by getting lazy head teachers to make a bit of effort by allowing parents to start free schools next door to them – which an analysis (that anyone can reproduce for themselves using online information) has shown is what happens in practice.

    Let’s put the needs of the children first – not use them, like the highly political author of this article, as a platform to attack the government.

    • Louise Miller-Marshall

      * PISA is an unreliable method of judging educational outcomes (to say the least)
      * Making teachers secure enough to take ownership of their professional development and of outcomes for their students does bring about improvements
      * We don’t need to replace current teachers with new graduates: even saying that reveals a profound lack of understanding of the teaching and learning process and how long the craft of teaching takes to develop
      * I don’t know any lazy headteachers; I do know a lot of heads who are being driven to despair by seeing the profession they love and value being pulled to shreds by ideologically-driven politicians
      * Free Schools can work well in the right context and can be very damaging in the wrong context. One size does not fit all.

      • Jocelyn – you have been misled about there being a ‘dramatic fall’ in the UK’s position in international (ie PISA) league tables between 1997 and 2010. The first PISA tests took place in 2000. The UK did well but the OECD later redacted the data after it discovered the UK figures were flawed. When the PISA results for 2009 were published on 7 December 2010, the OECD repeated a warning that the 2000 results for the UK were faulty and should NOT be used for comparison.
        Michael Gove and the DfE deliberately ignored this caveat and issued a press release with a graph showing a steep decline in the UK’s international position since 2010. Most of the media churned it and some, like the Daily Mail, used it for sensational headlines on the front page in giant font.
        Two years later (yes, it took two years of campaigning by groups such as Full Fact and the Local Schools Network for which I write), the UK Statistics Authority censured the DfE use of these PISA figures. Unfortunately, the myth has taken hold.

  2. Mark Bocker

    I don’t think many would disagree in principle, especially on the virtues of Theory Y and a more teacher-centred focus (coaching and mentoring per se). Nor would many conclude that data and the time wasted on its analysis is anything more than folly – “where now for school improvement”? http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/how-to-improve-a-school/

    However, the CoT has taken a back seat partly because of the vested interests perceived by those not prepared to back it fully. In addition, managers and leaders have been implementing, enforcing and monitoring the whims of Ofsted/DfE for a long time now and some patterns in behaviour have become mindsets. The fact that so many schools still judge lessons and use them for PM; that data is still king in too many schools and takes up far too much valuable time and focus; demonstrates a move away from leaders as drivers of the best educational outcomes for children to playing the data game.

    One union and one representative body would go a long way to resolving the position but has our profession got the desire or drive? Is there sufficient common ground between those who have transitioned from teacher to manager? Many, many outstanding examples of shared vision, shared, purpose and shared mission can be seen in social media contributions and collaborative ventures but the tipping point is not yet there where the rest will follow. Why?

    Teachers become teachers because it is intrinsically a purposeful vocation which has so many rewards that cannot be equated to pay and conditions and Dan Pink demonstrates why we don’t perform better because of money – nevertheless being rewarded equitably would help would it not? As would being involved in our pursuit of the best for our children if we worked together as one profession with one vision. As collaborators there can be few professions that can beat teachers at this game – and it’s a worthwhile game!

    Maybe I’m just an idealist but I have seen so many lost opportunities to challenge the current status quo that it makes me wonder why we just watch and let it all happen – because, as a profession we lack cohesion, trust and professional regard. Unforgivable.

  3. Pam Sammons

    You are quite mistaken, there has been no dramatic fall in PISA position, see NFER analyses of this. The relative position of England compared with other reference countries is broadly similar from 2000 onwards. England does particularly well in maths and science in TIMMS. It was a convenient myth to suggest results had declined to justify massive change of free schools & mass academisation (neither of which has been shown to raise standards as Ofsted reports and analyses of test and GCSE outcomes indicate). What goes on in schools is much more important than structures as research on educational effectiveness has demonstrated. The London Challenge was a very interesting and positive initiative that did stimulate improvement across many London schools. Professor Pam Sammons University of Oxford

    • Pam – you’re right about there being no dramatic fall in PISA position (see my comment above). Since 2006 and 2012, UK’s score has been constant. In 2012, UK’s position actually rose slightly in Reading and Maths, but fell in Science. The UK is still performing at the level it always has since 2006: at the OECD average in Reading and Maths, and ABOVE the OECD average in Science.
      You’re also right that England does well in the five-yearly Trends in Maths and Science tests. And the last round of Progress in International Reading Studies (PIRLS) showed English 10-year olds improving their score http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/12/10-year-olds-from-england-and-northern-ireland-shine-like-pirls-in-global-reading-test.
      The ‘plummeting down league table’ myth was promoted by Michael Gove to underpin his radical reforms. But it was misinformation deliberated disseminated to justify mass academization and the setting up of free schools. I’ve no objection to the latter if they satisfy local need for places, but I object to taxpayers’ money being spent of free schools where there are already surplus places.