The system could be given the freedoms to be great

It looks like a busy five years for Nicky Morgan: 500 new free schools, an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers needed, new headteachers for schools “requiring improvement”, and the academisation of failing and coasting secondary schools.

The education secretary has a lot to do after wielding her “stick” during the election campaign: primary heads whose pupils can’t do their times-tables to be removed; children retaking SATs at the beginning of secondary school; do the EBacc or forget ever being considered an outstanding school. Plus, Ofsted will be reformed and budgets will be tightened.

However, budget cuts may be rendered insignificant as there simply are not enough teachers to employ – already a reality for some schools with the four-day school week a possibility before the end of this parliament. The baby boomers of the 1960s are heading for retirement and the improving economy and private sector may be more appealing to top graduates than working all hours in a school, only to be continually told that you are not good enough. Teachers want a life.

The leadership shortage also could become a full-blown crisis as the pervading culture of mistrust and fear leaves fewer people wanting to lead schools and a limited capacity for system leadership and peer-to-peer support. All this may happen at a time when an extra 500,000 children and young people enter our schools.

Teacher supply and school places are the two massive challenges

For children who have been tested to within an inch of their lives and forced to follow a narrow restricted curriculum, schooling becomes something to endure rather than something that enriches their lives. Parents and employers become frustrated within an ever-changing and incomprehensible examination system and free schools, like any start-up in business, take flight and bomb with equal measure.

But dig beneath the robust rhetoric and you hear a different tone: “We believe that teaching is a highly skilled profession … It’s about listening … rebuild bridges with the teaching profession … tackling things like workload, Ofsted inspections, and building on all the lessons I’ve learned in the last 10 months.”

The next five years may be the best of times with the Department for Education, schools, professional associations and unions, local authorities and academy trusts all working to implement a school-led system that takes collective responsibility for ensuring every child receives a good education. The education secretary has in her grasp some key levers to head off the perfect storm that is beginning to gather: in seeking information, before the election, about the workload challenges facing schools, she knows that: Ofsted needs extensive reform, possibly replaced with validated peer-to-peer accountability and the incoherent sequencing and pace of curriculum changes need to be rethought with school leaders thinking about what will have a significant impact on children’s learning. Ms Morgan has the opportunity to be one of the most admired secretaries of state by doing less but doing it much, much better. Her natural Tory tendencies may also kick in and she sees schools and academies in the same way as small business; less regulation and less central direction.

Teacher supply and school places are the two massive challenges over the coming years. There is a commitment to extra capital funding to meet the growing demand for places, but the detail is rather light on teacher supply. More recruitment via TeachFirst may be a challenge with an improving economy and, as to an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers . . . well, I’ll be so delighted if the government pulls it off that I’ll eat Paddy Ashdown’s hat and Alastair Campbell’s kilt. It’s a big ask unless we reform the culture within the system and schools, starting with a different relationship between the education secretary and the profession. Early signs show promise and she may well be able to operate under the radar, protected from publicity by the small matter of an in/out of Europe referendum and constitutional change within the United Kingdom.

Commentators are reflecting on how the election of 2015 has so many similarities to 1992. The Conservative government will be keen to avoid the memories of 1997 casting its dark, gloomy shadow over the final years of this administration. Some people believe education could go into meltdown, but there is also the chance that the system could be given the freedoms to be great.

Stephen Tierney blogs at Leading Learner and tweets as @LeadingLearner

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  1. A good summary of the problems ahead for schools, and some hopes that things will turn out OK. I have a more general thought.

    Given that schools are generally led by very capable people, does anyone know why school leaders are unable to influence government policy? When leading a school, a good headteacher will have a strategy and a plan for delivering success. Why does it seem that state education blows in the wind of political dogma? Are headteachers just too nice? Are they so good at fixing problems that they are happy to accept any old baloney from a politician. Or are they resigned to being the whipping boys?

    It’s a genuine question. Why do headteachers have such little influence on how the country’s education policy is developed? What would it take for them to say “enough is enough”?

    Maybe state school headteachers are happy with what is done to them and their teachers, and it is true that there are all these incompetents running state schools whilst brilliant unqualified people are running independent schools. I guess that’s what the Daily Mail reading general public are led to believe, and it seems no-one is going to challenge that view.