March 2011


  • The truth hurts
    Tackling an underperforming colleague is never easy but by avoiding it or passing the buck you risk undermining school improvement. Edward Gildea offers some strategies for handling sensitive situations. More
  • Time for reflection
    The government is dispensing with the SEF but that doesn’t mean schools should abandon it as a tool for improvement. Tony Thornley looks at the future of self-evaluation and the implications for schools. More
  • Free range
    Ramsey Grammar’s pride and joy isn’t a state-of-the-art IT suite or Assessment for Learning scheme, says David Trace. It’s a sheep shed and piggery in the school’s animal unit… More
  • An end to pushover policies?
    Doctors and generals wouldn’t tolerate it. So why does the education profession passively accept direction from ministers on how and what to teach? It’s time to set the agenda ourselves, says Peter Campling. More
  • Brainwaves
    Accommodating right brain learning and enabling students to draw on imagery for revision rather than written texts could fundamentally improve outcomes, argues David Hughes. More
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Doctors and generals wouldn’t tolerate it. So why does the education profession passively accept direction from ministers on how and what to teach? It’s time to set the agenda ourselves, says Peter Campling.

An end to pushover policies?

The education white paper The Importance of Teaching “sets out a radical reform programme for the schools system”, according to the Department for Education.

Its language certainly is progressive, but much of the substance is not. As school and college leaders, we welcome the increase in autonomy and the reduction in bureaucracy and regulation that is apparently on offer. However, reactionary proposals for curriculum, accreditation and accountability scorn the progressive intent and threaten to drag us back 30 years or more.

As responsible leaders in a key public sector, we recognise that an elected government must run the economy and the systems of the state as it sees fit. If the government decides to cut the education budget, stop the Building Schools for the Future programme, or set up ‘free’ schools, we may object but we reluctantly accept.

On the more fundamental educational matters, however – what we teach and how we teach it – school and college leaders should be doing more than simply voicing disapproval. We should be taking control of the agenda.

Jumping through hoops

As leaders we tend to be cautious in our policy positions and to accept directives from above, however unpopular. There are good reasons for this.

Firstly, in recent years we have enjoyed significant influence through working closely within the key decision-making circles.

Secondly, we are acutely aware of our vulnerability. For all the benefits of increased accountability and transparency, it has made us more fearful, and more reactive. We cannot survive without being successful in whatever way the government and Ofsted choose to judge us and so we dance to the tune of the day, jump through the hoops and sacrifice our principles when necessary.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. How many of us do not give disproportionate support to students who happen to be C/D borderline at GCSE? How many of us have not put additional resources into English and maths, since they became key league table criteria?

ASCL has long held the view that the five or more A*-C approach to accountability leads to perverse incentives and that a better way to hold schools to account would be through an average point score on an agreed number of GCSEs. This would at least ensure that we value the performance of all our students equally.

The white paper refers to a range of accountability measures, including measuring progress more effectively, which could genuinely lead to improvement.

However the progressive window is quickly shut tight as it becomes clear that one of the main accreditation and accountability measures at Key Stage 4 is going to be the English Baccalaureate. Education secretary Michael Gove has said that, for now, five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths remains “the most important measure of school performance”. However I fear that it is only a matter of time before the English Bac will be the tune to which we all must dance.

Ideologically-driven views

Or must we? After all, which other profession would put up with it?

Imagine the outcry if the secretary of state for health issued directives to doctors on how to treat patients or the secretary of state for defence instructed generals on battle strategies. Secretaries of state for education however, and not just the current one, have clearly viewed the fundamental matter of ‘what we teach and how we teach it’ as their rightful territory.

Not surprisingly their views have tended to be simplistic, ideologically-driven and outdated. As education secretary in the 1980s, Kenneth Baker is rumoured to have written his first draft of the National Curriculum on the back of an envelope over a glass of port.

It took Ruth Kelly – albeit with Tony Blair pulling the strings – just a few days in office before dismissing the Tomlinson Report on 14-19 education, the culmination of years of work by some of the finest minds in education.

This tradition is being kept alive with the English Baccalaureate. The ‘chosen’ subjects reflect the preferences of Michael Gove and his colleagues, heavily influenced, I would guess, by their own schooling 30 years or so ago. The temptation is to mock, but the implications are already damaging.

For instance, at our year 9 options evening in February, parents were queuing up to see me, concerned about the English Bac. History, geography and modern foreign languages have suddenly become very popular.

Just two days later, Ofsted completed its inspection of our arts, textiles and design provision and awarded us ‘outstanding’. We are delighted as this reflects the really exciting work that is taking place in our creative subjects. Some of the most valuable learning in the school takes place in these areas, yet they are not worthy of the ‘academic rigour’ of the English Bac.

Rise above

I went to school at about the same time as Michael Gove and, like him, I didn’t have the chance to do accredited courses in subjects like textiles, ICT, PE and citizenship. I believe we lost out in this, not only because of the value of the subjects themselves but also because of the range of life s skills and attributes that they help young people to develop.

The English Baccalaureate undermines the advances being made in education and the evolution towards a more holistic and sophisticated approach to child development. As school leaders we should rise above the GCSE hierarchy squabbles that the English Bac has provoked.

Hitting subjects back and forth like tennis balls is not only divisive and demoralising, but detracts from our real concern: that an over-arching accreditation should reflect the range and the depth of the curriculum that we actually teach.

Of the curriculum itself we seem to be entering an unfortunate and somewhat farcical period. It is unfortunate because most of us appear actually to like the National Curriculum as it currently is. We like its aims, its flexibility and freedom, and its balance between skills and knowledge.

What is farcical is that if all schools become academies within the lifetime of this government, none of us will be required to actually follow it.

It is even more farcical in that nearly all of those tasked with carrying out the review are already associated with academies or the independent sector. In other words they are developing a curriculum not for themselves but for those of us still struggling away, albeit temporarily, in our bog-standard comprehensives. Well, thank you very much – excuse me while I go and iron my leotard...

Isn’t it time we said enough is enough? We are being dealt with in a way that would be completely unacceptable to other professions.

Isn’t it time that we fronted up to the challenge of taking ownership of the curriculum and of producing our own over-arching accreditation? Yes, let’s make it up ourselves – after all, who are we? Professionals?

Let’s be radical and develop a curriculum and accreditation that doesn’t approve or disapprove of Biblical Hebrew, but that is relevant to the modern world and can inspire excellent learning.

Let’s have a curriculum and accreditation that is challenging and rigorous and that will help young people to acquire the knowledge, skills and attributes to be happy and successful in their lives and to make a positive contribution to society. Simple? Well no, actually, it isn’t!

  • Peter Campling is head of Deptford Green School in London and chair of ASCL’s public and parliamentary committee.

An end to pushover policies?