Funding cuts, a recruitment crisis . . . what is there to be happy about? Well, the quality of the profession and the initial signals the government is sending about how it will work with it
So, the job of steering the school system through its most difficult challenges for a generation falls to Nicky Morgan. Not for her the passing satisfaction of fawning headlines as alleged sacred cows are slaughtered. Instead, the hard yards of implementation and improvement with the tide against us and the wind in our face.
The tide against us because funding reduction is coming. You may not think it, as national insurance and employer pension cost increases begin to hit school budgets, but 2015/16 is the last year of the good times, not the first of the tough times.
Over the remainder of the Parliament, the promise to protect per pupil school funding in cash terms will feel like a cut of 12 per cent per pupil. In case this hasn’t sunk in: deduct 12 per cent from your budget and now try to balance the books and raise standards.
The wind in our face because teacher supply is getting more difficult. This is what we see every time the economy picks up: major employers throw more time, effort and money at recruiting graduates. Persuading them to be teachers gets harder.
But it will get tougher. In five years’ time there will be 100,000 fewer 21-year-olds to persuade to teach and 550,000 more pupils in England.
Little has actually changed in implementation and improvement, despite all the sound and fury of recent years. We mostly haven’t yet started teaching the new national curriculum, the new GCSEs and the new A-levels. Many converter academies converted to stay as they were, not to change.
But there are reasons to be cheerful: the teaching profession itself and the signals the government is sending about how it will work with it.
The success of a policy is always much more about its implementation than about the idea itself. Brilliant ideas implemented rigidly and without refinement rarely succeed. Modest ideas implemented with serious attention to concerns and building of capacity can have real impact.
Reformers have been far better at structural change than at quality improvement. In the last generation, there has been no three-year period without reform of curriculum, testing, exams or school funding. When the tectonic plates are constantly shifting beneath you, it is hard to develop a consistently successful and improving approach.
For all the structural change, the most important objective of reform is that more teachers succeed with more children. And the most important mechanism for achieving that is professional development – best realised through teacher collaboration, observation of others and the joint development of practice.
So the initial post-election messages from government are in many ways encouraging. If you were serious about listening to the profession, you might start by holding an online listening session with teachers. If you were serious about supporting and building the capability of the profession, you might make a priority of supporting the College of Teaching; and if you wanted to lower the political temperature, you might make clear this support is part of a political consensus.
The government’s policy on academy conversion of requires improvement (RI) schools is no one’s idea of soft or nuanced. Intervention to improve struggling schools is not a bad idea, but will only succeed if subtly led by skilled leaders and teachers. So if you were setting out to make it work in the interests of schools and children, you might try to combine pace with consultation with the profession.
The fact government is doing these things ought to give us hope. The fact the quality and maturity of the profession is much greater than when we last faced these problems a generation ago should give us even more. Profession-led proposals like the College of Teaching and the Foundation for Leadership in Education show just how much we can take the lead in shaping our own destiny.
The secretary of state we need for the next five years will combine unusual levels of determination and unusual levels of humility, openness and listening. The profession we need will have to engage with government in the same way.