Politics

How we can make the most of the new government’s first hundred days

This period of political transition creates some latitude - but what should we do with it?

This period of political transition creates some latitude - but what should we do with it?

11 Jul 2024, 17:00

I remember teaching the day after the 1997 Labour landslide. We staggered through that Friday to the hum of ‘things can only get better’, hopeful for change. Less than 100 days later, the refrain changed.

The then-DfES published ‘Excellence in Schools’. Within a year of that, our April Fool’s joke to Year 5 was that Tony Blair was creating an eighth day in every week dedicated to SATs practice.

The first period of a new government can often feel like a strange vacuum. While plans have already been cooked up, ministers will (rightly) be getting their heads around governing (rather than actually doing much of it).

In opposition, Bridget Phillipson and colleagues followed a path of deliberately not announcing anything that would offend anyone (except perhaps private schools). The first 100 days, however, have to be about making tough, precise choices about priorities.

This will involve review the evidence from the inside, including how the education budget is being spent by schools, MATs, and a range of pet programmes commissioned from Whitehall. 

Following the pattern set by previous incumbents (those who were there long enough, and not as caretakers), I am guessing we will have an education white paper by the autumn. It will satisfy some and leave others disappointed. That’s real politics.

By December, we’ll have a spending review that will put their money where their mission is, outlining a budget for 2025-26 and possibly beyond.

This means that we, as a teaching profession, also have some genuine space for around one hundred term-time days. It’s hardly anarchy out there, but our old masters are no longer around and our new masters have not quite taken up the reins.

In addition, Ofsted’s ‘Big Listen’, while hardly a pause, gives some breathing space not to slavishly follow their existing framework. So, until around say, October half-term, we have some latitude. But what tocould we do with it?

Work on our relationship

First, with a secretary of state already working to reset the relationship between teachers and government, we need to help her and her officials get beyond easy rhetoric towards a new social partnership.

For the profession to take the lead in that partnership in the way it can and should, we need to show we are ready for a grown-up relationship with government.

Of course, our unions will demand better pay, schools will want bigger budgets, and organisations will want their programmes funded. With a Treasury reluctant to give anything more, this is helpful pressure.

However, it is almost inevitable that less money comes our way than we hope for. The way we react will be vital to the formation of a longer-term positive relationship benefits schools, staff, and above all students.

Get rid of stupid stuff

Second, echoing Wes Streeting’s efforts to ‘get rid of stupid stuff’ in the NHS, now may be the time do start not doing or caring about some of what the last government made us do or care about.

If, for example, any school decides not to cover every aspect of the national curriculum to make space for greater depth within or new learning beyond the national curriculum, will anyone notice or care? 

If we move from an excessively formulaic approach to early career development to something a more bespoke and developmental than the ECF allows, what will actually happen to us?

If we just forget about the Ebacc, or adapt SEND policies to meet the needs of our children, or ignore any other kind of edict from the previous government, will we really get in trouble?

This isn’t exactly ‘work to rule’, it’s just putting the interests of the children in our care and the staff who support them before any slavish adherence to an old set of rules.

Get our house in order

Third, and especially for those of us who are longing for a bigger vision for the outcomes we want our children to achieve (described by Liz Robinson as ‘joyful rigour’), we have a chance to become a more effective movement for change.

While the failures of so-called progressive education have been overstated and parodied, there is no doubt that mistakes were made under the last Labour government. We need much better ways to advocated for, design, teach and assess more expansive approaches to education. 

I’m optimistic that a number of positive forces can lead us to a place where our school system is both knowledge-rich and disposition-rich, and achieves more equitable outcomes across the board. Let’s not blow it with another decade of sloppy thinking and acting.

And whether in the physical staffroom or the digital one, we need to come together and up our dignity game too. Education will always be a contested space, but we can all do better at valuing the opinions of others and disagreeing with dialogic respect. Perhaps we can roll out a  ‘Twittercratic oath’ based on the Dalai Lama’s wise words: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Back in 1997, one old teacher told me the two best things about teaching were “July and August”. Sadly, retention rates suggest more and more of us feel this way. Do please I hope we all have the relaxing summer youwe deserve – and around that, let’s make these first 100 days count.

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