“Get politics out of education” is a heartfelt cry heard in many forms. But can it work?
A general election makes the removal of politics from education policy all the more attractive. It is easy to sympathise with the idea given the toxic mix that results when we combine the two. The ideal political education announcement has one statistic or number, a recognisable institution or job, a ridiculous deadline and – your choice here – either a longing for a golden past or a glittering future. Teacher bashing is optional.
However, the complete eradication of politics from education is neither achievable nor desirable. No politician will surrender the levers of power completely, whatever they may say about trusting the profession. But, even if they did, I don’t believe it would be desirable. As well as a representative of school leaders, I am a parent and employer. I think all three roles deserve a say in the education system. What more fundamental questions for democracy can there be than the future of our nation and the preparation of the next generation? I don’t think the profession alone should determine the purpose of our education system, the desirable outcomes or what is taught.
The complete eradication of politics from education is neither achievable nor desirable
Perhaps we cannot and should not eradicate politics altogether but we at least have the right to demand good politics. This tends to lead to the sensible suggestion that political involvement in education should be limited to determining outcomes, leaving the profession to determine the methods; that politics provides the ‘what’ and the profession provides the ‘how’. This is fine as far as it goes and it is amazing how often this principle is violated in education, with political decisions determining class size, teaching methods, behaviour policies, leadership styles, exam entry timing and many other decisions.
But even this principle runs into some challenges. The boundary between method and outcome is not as clear as it might appear. How things are achieved can be as important as the results themselves, particularly on issues like fairness and access. Are we really comfortable with a school that achieves high pass rates by refusing to admit lower performing pupils, for example?
The values and principles by which our education system operates require some democratic input too. In reality, this boundary will be permanently contested, and it is probably healthy that it is so. More serious is the fact that not even outcomes can be effectively determined without professional (or at least expert input). An outcome may not be achievable with available resources (universal free school meals, perhaps); it may conflict with other outcomes (school improvement versus comparable outcomes); there may simply be be too many outcomes to cope with.
So there are no easy rules to help education and politics work well together.
Some institutions could help however. If the profession was more active, it would not leave so many voids for politics to fill. Steps to strengthen professional autonomy, like a College of Teaching, could help in this regard.
At NAHT we’ve also been struck by the impact of the Office of Budget Responsibility in the US and over here. It’s far from perfect, but we’d quite like one of our own: an Office of Education Responsibility. The Office would have the right to analyse and report on education policies before implementation: scoring them for evidence of impact, value for money and the capacity of the system to implement them within the agreed deadlines and resources. This approach ties no-one’s hands with rules that are made to be broken but provides a counterweight to politically driven decision making. Perhaps it could also have ownership of education statistics so that we get politically neutral evidence on questions of performance and improvement.
An Office would be no panacea, some level of politics will always be with us and should always be with us, but a network of institutions, combined with more professional assertion, might correct the balance.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of NAHT