The fifth in our ‘What if…?’ debates series, looking at how best to support the most challenged schools, featured the stellar line-up of the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, Sam Freedman of Teach First, Head of Passmores Academy (and ‘Educating Essex’) Vic Goddard, and Lucy Heller, Chief Executive of the international education charity Ark.
While some schools and students buck the odds, the correlation between disadvantage and lower educational attainment remains a strong one. This has been a central concern in education debate for some time, but it seems we keep taking two steps forward and one step back on (some might say one step forward and two steps back). We asked our panellists: if you were Secretary of State, what would you do to crack this problem once and for all? This required some radical ideas; what we got was radical but also practicable (well, in theory at least – even the suggestion of moving Parliament to Sheffield; the upcoming re-fit does provide the opportunity, after all…).
Inevitably, the greater difficulties challenged schools face in recruiting and retaining teachers was a major theme. There are many potential levers at our disposal to address this. Some are monetary: paying off teachers’ student loans; helping them with housing; offering higher salaries. Other levers speak to teachers’ working life, highlighting the need to ‘de-risk’, in career terms, time spent in more challenging schools.
Vic Goddard set out why teaching in these schools is different: the teachers are generally younger and less experienced (and often teaching outside their subject area); regardless of their career stage, they will also have much more work to do outside the classroom. So, reducing these teachers’ contact time is something to consider. Professional development was also on the menu – ideally in the form of a 10-year plan, and bespoke to the teacher but also to the classes he/she is teaching.
Across the panel and audience there was a spectrum of views on how directive the government should be in its management of the teaching workforce. Ultimately, there was a preference for a voluntary/incentives-based rather than conscription-based approach to encouraging teachers away from the leafy suburbs. A notable insight was the extent to which schools are now ‘growing their own’ teachers. In contrast to the almost missionary model of Teach First of old, which was lauded for simply getting ‘high flying’ role models into disadvantaged communities, schools – and Teach First – are seeing real benefits from teachers returning to their former schools. And this related to a wider shift in thinking on social mobility, more on which in a moment.
Accountability was of course the other stand-out theme, the sentiment of the discussion summed up in the comment that we ‘should focus less on weighing the pig and more on how to fatten it’. Government must be able to act briskly where problems are emerging – but accountability cannot be one size fits all, and needs to be pro-active and supportive, not reactive and punitive. An apparent ‘easy win’ would be to better delineate the roles of Ofsted and the Regional Schools Commissioners.
Getting more radical, there were calls for an end to grammar schools and private schools. In the same vein, the need for a re-balancing of competition and collaboration came through strongly. While a system will always encompass both elements, a greater emphasis on schools’ collective role in educating the whole of the community, and supporting each other to that end, should be more inspiring than dog-eat-dog competition. Sometimes this will need stronger regulation/less autonomy – not least over admissions (and illegal exclusions).
In amongst these strands there were echoes of the New Labour children’s workforce/multi-agency working agenda (Every Child Matters). This came sharply to the fore in relation to children’s mental health, support for which, all panellists were clear, is at crisis point. Funding cuts have eroded both in-school support as well as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, and children being turned away from the latter simply rebounds on schools, and of course the pupils themselves.
Universities are part of the mix. Why are our most selective institutions not enrolling the best students from across all schools? Why are they not opening campuses in higher education ‘cold spots’ in the UK as well as overseas? At the other end of the pipeline, so is early years provision, where policy is, in the words of one panellist, being driven by electioneering around the needs of working parents rather than the needs of the most needy children.
And this brings us full circle to the overarching problem – inequalities. Here the comments reflected the shift we’re beginning to see in the wider debate on social mobility – away from a ‘(rescuing) embers from the ashes’ model to a focus on distributing resources, including talent, in a way that helps all communities to flourish. Schools sit at the heart of their communities, so hopefully they will feel the benefit of this shift in sentiment very soon…