Manifesto 2024

Three core principles to make better education policy

Whatever their specific aims, the next government will need a strategy to put the profession on a stronger footing to deliver them

Whatever their specific aims, the next government will need a strategy to put the profession on a stronger footing to deliver them

19 Apr 2024, 5:00

There are no policy magic bullets and it’s better anyway to have a good overall strategy than lots of specific policies. Here are some suggestions, based on my experience, for the next government to develop a good strategy to deliver educational improvement.


The extraordinary growth of central control over schools in the past 35 years has gone too far. A more devolved system would work better:

Take back control from Number 10 and the Treasury.

Good organisations delegate responsibility and hold to account for results. By contrast, DfE has little freedom of action and is crippled by requirements for approval which never used to exist. When we were setting up Oak during the pandemic, a grant worth 0.001 per cent of DfE’s budget required approval from Treasury and Number 10. This is no way to run anything.

Make clear that government won’t decide everything.

Many decisions are better made locally by people who understand the situation than by central government. When I first worked there, DfE consistently made clear that it wouldn’t get involved in matters within the remit of headteachers, governors or local authorities. That was a good principle.

Build institutional capability outside government.

In most sectors, professional matters are determined according to the evidence outside the political process – but we don’t have equivalents of, for example, NICE or the Royal Colleges. We need to build strong, independent professional institutions: establishing EEF and the Chartered College of Teaching were first steps but there is more to do.

Expect trusts to do a bigger job.

Government sets expectations of the trust role and capability which are too low and then over-regulates process because it isn’t confident of having capable, properly-run institutions. Ministers can get out of this vicious circle by articulating higher expectations and requiring trusts to meet them.

Renew a sense of purpose

Government has key roles in defining a vision and ensuring the system is well-designed to achieve it:

Build a national movement for higher standards.

In 1997 David Blunkett galvanised the education system with a strong sense of a mission for higher standards, equity and collaboration. A secretary of state can and should set this tone.

Rebuild a high challenge, high support infrastructure for school improvement.

Arms-length accountability (and intervention when it all goes wrong) is insufficient. Good trusts, the best local authorities and organisations like Challenge Partners all make sure that schools get sharp challenge and meaningful support from leaders who are seen by the school as ‘on our side’ and understand it well. Every school should have this.

Avoid damaging pendulum swings.

There are problems to solve, but it is easy to over-correct. Governments like to pull ‘big levers’ like curriculum, assessment, accountability, structures or the funding system and claim ‘transformational change’. This costs schools time and energy and always has unintended consequences. We need effective policy for continuous improvement.

Get behind schools

In a well-functioning system which it isn’t micro-managing, government can accelerate change:

Build meaningful relationships focused on action and solutions.

One reason school leaders and others look back fondly on London Challenge is that they were at the table and had voice. That is also one reason why London Challenge had impact.

Grow the top and spread the impact of effective practice.

Another London Challenge lesson: nurturing and growing the best practitioners to take a wider role works. Again, trusts can be one mechanism, but aren’t the only one.

Mind your language.

Political expediency or just the desire to show you’re on parents’ side can lead to language which teachers find critical, demotivating or annoying. This slows or blocks improvement. Estelle Morris’s language always showed teachers she understood them. Michael Gove could have taken many more with him by not sounding like he was running against the profession.

Resource for success.

Public finances are tight and we cannot expect riches, but shrinking resources would scupper reform as leaders focus on keeping the show on the road. Even limited real-terms growth would enable heads to think more creatively about change.

A strategy based on these principles would create a very different relationship between schools and central government and new impetus for improvement.

This article is part of a series of sector-led policies in the run-up to the next general election. Read all the others here

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