We used to just ‘trust’ ourselves
Originally published here
There is a common criticism of governments that they ‘give with one hand and take with the other’, and as regards the Schools White Paper released last week, it is no different. This time, the curriculum freedoms for schools that the Government gave with one hand a decade ago are now being taken back structurally with the other. There are also several signs of what is plainly just a ‘power transfer’ from one group of people to another, in various different ways, while doubling down on the academy trust agenda further.
A national data solution is welcome news
To begin with, however, there is much to welcome in the paper. The Parent Pledge is, in essence, a good idea, although it falls short when we look at the development of the whole child, focusing largely on the (albeit arguably) core skills of English and Maths. There is also an excellent and long-awaited proposal to create a “national data solution”, which will also “provide a blueprint for wider data improvements across the system”.
I have been calling for something like this for years. Between schools alone, data sharing has long been error-prone and can sometimes be laborious to boot. That might be as between primary and secondary phase, for instance, or perhaps sharing between different systems, such as between schools and Local Authorities, or even just between different kinds of school systems, such as a MIS or a VLE.
We do need some manner of Single Central Record for what is going on with children at all levels of provision, and up to now, the facilities for this have often been inadequate. While the specific context of this proposal relates to attendance in particular, more broadly it could also feed into the national wrap-around picture when we look at cared-for children. As a former Supported Lodgings host who was once presented with a young person to take in and care for, and was told only that “his name is [X] and he’s a very nice young man” – that’s right, nothing else! – I certainly do welcome this thinking around data sharing, as long as the proper security and privacy frameworks are built into the solution.
But beyond these ‘levels of progress’ (as we might once have said), much of the rest of the paper is clearly derived from the kind of DfE ‘groupthink’ to which the sector has sadly become accustomed over the past decade and a half (so this does not only include the successive incumbent Conservative Governments).
The first major problem that leaps out at me is where it talks about curriculum modelling. “Curriculum design,” it says, “is an expert skill, yet too many teachers reinvent the wheel and design new lessons, with recent Teacher Tapp data showing 46% of primary teachers are planning their lessons from scratch.”
This is clearly setting up a raison d’être for the Oak Academy as a national body, but it is problematic. How exactly, if young teachers are not expected to design their own lessons, is the art of ‘curriculum design’ ever to be perpetuated when they are older and more experienced? Yes, typically it might be a Deputy Head who is in overall charge of curriculum modelling in an average secondary school, but that Deputy Head was once an NQT. Perhaps, at one stage, they too designed their own lessons – otherwise, how else would they know what works and what doesn’t?
“In no other profession,” it continues, “are newly trained employees expected to discover by trial and error how to deliver. Instead – as with other top professions – we must do more to support new teachers to succeed.”
While men may be from Mars, as the saying goes, and women from Venus, whoever wrote this is apparently from Neptune. All competent professionals have had to ‘suck it and see’ at the start – this is what brings out the best in the brightest (as long as they are well-supported in doing so).
In fact, this is one of the most patronising sentences I have ever read – again, arising from DfE groupthink that is designed to turn the art of education into a science, with measurable and predictable results at every level. In fairness, a science can also be an art (I look to translation, one of my other occupations, as an example) – but not like this.
In essence, ‘reinventing the wheel’ is something that every generation (including of professionals) must do – as we, as educators, know all too well. Naturally, it is true that every generation of professionals stands upon the shoulders of the last, as the latter did before them – but newcomers must learn the trade. To suggest otherwise is, frankly, bizarre – but the reasons for it become clearer as one trudges through the rest of the paper.
We used to just ‘trust’ ourselves
Indeed, it makes frequent references to what might be described as a ‘sister document’ of sorts: ‘The case for a trust-led system’. This paper aims to set out why all schools must become part of a Multi-Academy Trust (not much room for singles, apparently), and notes that: “Strong trusts also achieve economies of scale, sharing resources, centralising functions, and ensuring robust financial governance, in order to build resilience and save time and money to reinvest into education.”
The trouble there is that this was precisely the role of Local Authorities beforehand. ‘Economies of scale’ are certainly welcome, but the sector has always had plenty of ways of achieving them, and the argument that this is only possible via a MAT is simply not true. Even at a local level, there have been consortia of e.g. Business Managers, or Network Managers, who would club together to negotiate bulk purchase deals with suppliers at discounted rates, for over a decade. More recently, professional associations such as ANME have sprung up to spread the burden at a national level.
‘Sharing resources’ is another thing that teachers have always done, be it formally or informally (and there is little practical difference between the two), in particular since the rise of the Internet. ‘Ensuring robust financial governance’ is something we employ skilled and experienced Governors and Business Managers for – and a MAT does not replace these, only add to them with another layer of management.
It may call itself a ‘trust-led’ system, but the one thing it appears to lack is trust itself – in us, to just get on with the job.
The danger of centralising functions
But ‘centralising functions’ is the real kicker here. There is a long-held view within the DfE that roles such as Finance, HR and IT – perhaps even Site Management – would be more ‘efficient’ (i.e. ‘cheaper’) if they were managed centrally across several schools. That argument is probably a valid one if cost-efficiency is the only angle in play, but it falls down when one considers the wider roles that these kinds of staff play in a school community.
For indeed, every member of a school’s staff is an educator of sorts. They all play a role in setting an example and leading by it, but beyond that, they represent professions that some of their wards may well wish to enter in later life. A good example is IT, where the young lads (and they are usually lads) who want to try their hand at a bit of hacking can be taken under the wing of an IT professional who might well remember the days when they themselves were probably doing the same thing. Often, someone who is more technically competent than they are is the only person they will listen to on that score – especially if they also happen to be going through a tough time.
They can be encouraged to use their talents for a better purpose, to report problems rather than exploiting them, and perhaps even given a separate system to play around with instead of trying to break into the one that the rest of the school community relies upon to do its job. All of this is eminently possible, but you only achieve it when that member of staff is part of the school community and has a reason to be engaged with the kids.
You absolutely will not get that level of ‘extra-curricular’ involvement and commitment from a centralised service – or indeed just a Managed Service Provider for a single school, for that matter. It completely breaks a wider school community’s ability to both stretch the most able in that field, and to make sure those kids don’t go down the wrong path. Saving money is all very well, but the price is paid by those kids who will lose out from the absence of these staff as part of the school community. It is detrimental at all levels.
Top-slicing is top-slicing – whoever is doing it
Moving on, we read that: “Having successfully introduced the national funding formula, we will now transition to using that formula to set each school’s budget directly, without local amendment … we know that trusts use pooling or ‘top-slice’ mechanisms to ensure effective and efficient operations across their group of schools and enhance the resilience of their academies to respond to short-term challenges.”
It is rather difficult to know where to begin with this kind of thing. Removing local control could perhaps be said to run in direct contrast to various strands of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, parts of which are supposed to involve empowering the regions. But the major issue I take with this idea is that ‘top-slicing’ is precisely what Local Authorities always used to do, in order to pay for various shared services such as Finance, HR, IT, etc. – though notably, these merely added further support and did not actually replace the roles (and jobs) of school support staff.
The question, then, is why we seem to think it is a good idea to just transfer the power, using a pretty similar model, from one group of people to another. It is true that a lot of the public sector (including LAs) is highly unionised and is getting increasingly politicised to boot, but there is no sense in pretending that private trusts can’t be problematic in their own way too. Simply ‘moving the problem’ is not going to fix education in this country.
It might be more cost-efficient overall if Local Authorities (which, of course, have plenty of other things to be getting on with too) were to disappear completely, and be replaced by MATs – but this is not what’s going to happen. All it really does is add in another layer of management, and those CEOs and COOs at MATs don’t necessarily come all too cheap either.
Taking back control – from you
So this draws us to my main issue with this ‘trust-led system’. In a truly resilient and versatile sectoral landscape, there will be some schools for which the MAT model works best, and those can choose to form up and function that way. There will be others for which the LA model works best, so they should be left alone. But that is not what these two white papers, when viewed in combination, are saying. The overbearing message throughout is ‘MATs good, SATs bad, LAs even worse’. ‘Join a trust (and make it a large one) – or else!’ It’s a broken record that I remember from a decade ago.
Speaking of messaging, there are one or two others that come across very strongly when one reads between the lines here. One good example is this: “We want to ensure that schools and trusts get the best value from every pound they spend, so we expect all schools to make use of the Department’s School Resource Management (SRM) tools, guidance and direct support.”
Now, I can tell you exactly what this is. This is a DfE power grab. It is a further denouncement of the ability of schools (and Local Authorities) to have some idea of what they actually need, and to draw further towards a centralised model of the way schools are managed administratively, despite the official point being to give them greater control. This a classic example of granting curriculum freedom through the academy trust model in principle, while taking it away at an administrative and structural level in practice because there is no trust in local staff – embedded within their school communities – to, as it were, keep their own house in good order.
Speaking of resource and infrastructure management, we next come to this: “Every school in the country should have the right infrastructure to allow them to make the most of modern digital technology for their children, including the high-quality tools provided by England’s flourishing EdTech market.”
That’s good. But then we have: “We will set out the core technology that we expect all schools to have in place by publishing new digital, data and technology standards.”
Ah! That means we’re going to micro-manage exactly how you’re supposed to do it, and then recommend that you jump into bed with certain cloud services (and probably Managed Service Providers too) if you haven’t already, even if that’s not necessarily the best idea for you.
I know this because I was involved in the consultancy on the DfE’s MoU with Microsoft several years ago, which in that case was a blatant power grab by Microsoft and nothing more than an attempt to get schools to start using all of their own services at once as fast as possible, while justifying it with an entirely unrealistic cost picture for most schools. The reality of this picture, however, was entirely lost on the DfE – so, of course, they went with it.
In summary, then, what we actually have here is just politics. There are some new developments that are welcome, but much of it essentially just involves a power transfer from one group of people to another. It consolidates the academies agenda further, and focuses solely on T&L outcomes that are ‘measurable’, without much regard for the wider development of the whole child – see, for example, the constant references to English and Maths in the Parent Pledge, with a lack of much talk about other subjects.
An important lesson one learns in politics is that, whenever anyone is trying to tell you that ‘[X] is the Way, the Truth and the Life’ – the single right way of doing things that they are trying to usher you towards, as we see here with MATs – they are always up to something. It is usually a power play of some sort.
But more generally, the wider problem with the groupthink here stems from the fact that much of the thinking behind all this has been drawn from people who don’t actually understand the sector, including its own internal politics (with a small P). The key way you can tell that is the way they are so obsessed with measuring everything, using stats and figures all the time.
This is what always happens when bureaucrats are put in charge of something they don’t really understand – because they don’t know how to tell for themselves whether or not performance is particularly good, they have to invent ‘targets’ so as to be able to ‘measure’ it. Those who are inherently obsessed with ‘measuring’ everything all the time are generally doing so because they don’t actually understand what they’re now involved in.
There is one final positive, though: the tutoring bit is pretty good, as long as it works out as intended – although it is at risk of turning into an NHS-style system as it stands. Indeed, on that latter point, the same can be said of the notion (in the second white paper) of moving teachers around the place: “The best trusts also deploy excellent teachers where they are needed most.”
Children will confide in a teacher (or any adult) whom they know and trust – moving them about just because the trust has decided they might be ‘better deployed elsewhere’ (for various nebulous reasons that come back to ‘measurement’ again) runs the risk of destroying hard-won relationships. The best form tutors I’ve seen have managed to get stuff out of kids like disclosures of intra-family abuse, which takes a lot of trust and a long-term relationship. Sadly, there seems to be no room in the politics to account for this.
A sanitised view of education
All of the messaging here appears to stem from a highly ‘sanitised’ view of education, which has very little bearing on the reality of the sector or any of the professions in it. It treats teachers as ‘resources’ to be ‘redeployed’ at will – though they can’t necessarily be expected to design their own lesson materials, of course. Indeed, it treats high-quality materials and delivery as something that could just as easily be put down to mere units that can be produced in a factory, of sorts, and then farmed out – completely failing to realise that anyone can read a PowerPoint, or watch a video, but that is not teaching.
Facts, history, statistics, mathematics, grammar… they can all be learnt remotely. But proper teaching involves a true meeting of (at least) two minds.
In fact, school staff are not simply ‘resources’ to be moved about just because someone, somewhere has got a bit itchy about stats. You cannot simply drop any old teacher who (you’ve decided) is ‘Outstanding’ into any random classroom and suddenly expect to see fantastic results – although that’s not to say it never happens. You cannot simply throw videos from the Oak Academy at kids and expect to see the same results as from a well-crafted, interactive lesson – however ‘optional’ this may be described as. You cannot simply replace in-house support staff with centralised or externalised services and think that some of those kids won’t now be missing out on something – even if that does sometimes cost a bit more.
Whether our role is to deliver in the classroom, or to make sure that classroom is able to support this, the wider relationships between children and school staff are not taken into account in the Government’s ‘case for MATs’ at all.
One expression I recall from a Head at a school that had successfully become Outstanding a good few years ago now was: “You tighten up to become Good. You loosen up to become Outstanding.”
Well, there’s not much loosening-up going on here!