Reflecting on the 2014 party conference season

What can we learn about the future of education from the party conference season? Little of substance I’m afraid.

Nicky Morgan got the best joke – ‘Nick Gibb – so good they appointed him twice’ – although I did like Tristram’s ‘continuity Gove’ jibe. Of course, politicians are extraordinarily grateful to teachers. The Conservatives are particularly grateful: the enemies of promise are now ‘heroes’. The parties are also quite proud of their track records, although Labour needed to reach back a few centuries, for some of their triumphs.

The outcome of the next election is hard to predict. In fact, there may be no clear outcome. It is useful to look, therefore, at what the parties had in common, and there are some threads running through all three conferences. Early years is one, although this is often characterised as childcare. Possibly childcare is a good vote winner, but it is early education that narrows the gap. Only the Lib Dems talked prominently about the skills of the early years workforce and the funding the sector receives. Nonetheless, this sector is going to rise in prominence over the next few years. Rightly so.

We can also be sure that character will be high on the agenda. Or resilience or grit depending on your preference. Both the Conservative and Lib Dems are keen to emphasise this is on top of a rigorous academic curriculum and all parties see extra curricular activity as a route to deliver it. At least Labour noted the role of support staff in the wider life of the school. The trouble is, schools are managed on data. No one has found a convincing way to measure character and therefore schools will not be judged on it. And the day someone does find a way to measure character we should all give up anyway. I have this terrible fear of a GCSE in resilience.

The role of the local authority as a delivery agency is never coming back

Collaboration features highly, with the London Challenge as an example, particularly for Labour. The trouble with the London Challenge is that everyone sees their own favourite theory in the story. The Conservatives have watered down some of their emphasis on autonomy via academies – every school is now to be valued. I have always believed that the current government got collaboration and autonomy the wrong way round at the primary level. If they had encouraged strong collaboration, then groups of schools would have enthusiastically demanded greater autonomy. Perhaps we will be able to address this in the future.

An interesting omission from most conferences was the role of the middle tier. This is mentioned in the Lib Dems pre-manifesto (we need one, apparently) but was strikingly absent from Tristram Hunt’s speech. I think we need to be absolutely clear that the role of the local authority as a delivery agency is never coming back.

Nicky Morgan focused on workload – possibly this is a result of the clear feedback coming from the union talks. The elephant in the room of workload is marking. Feedback to students is good; much of the late night and weekend marking demanded of teachers has limited impact. Yet Ofsted’s shift away from lesson observation to work scrutiny suggests we will face even more compliance driven marking. This is an issue to tackle urgently.

Finally, most politicians are edging their way towards CPD and teacher quality as key factors of improvement. They are right, but their approaches are so far very light. The sad fact is we don’t yet know enough about what works to direct investment intelligently. For this reason, the widely shared commitment to a College of Teaching may be the best first step. Both Labour and Lib Dems want to restore QTS and the Coalition is working to reform ITT. This is sensible but it is not going to transform education any time soon.

The troubling thing about being in charge of education at the centre is that the most powerful drivers of performance are largely beyond your reach. They are intangible, complex, voluntary and slow to change. In other words, they make awful election material. Far better to promise tangible structural changes and then count them. For this reason, we should not look for the salvation of education in the manifestos and speeches of politicians. The things that matter are in the grasp of the profession and can only be changed when the profession takes back ownership of what belongs to it, and gets working on change without waiting for permission. Perhaps a period of peace in education politics, perhaps even a period of limited minority government, might create the space for this. One thing is for sure, if we miss the chance, then we will have earned another period of top-down change.


Russell Hobby is General Secretary of NAHT

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