December 2016


  • Team Player
    National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter talks to Julie Nightingale about his role in promoting the benefits of academies and why he thinks more schools will come round to his view that they offer the best model for improving children’s education opportunities. More
  • Getting the best out of PFI
    Making your private finance initiative (PFI) contract work for you is about building good relationships and sustaining them but also following some practical steps, says Julia Harnden. More
  • Widen their horizons
    Links with employers can be invaluable in raising young people’s aspirations, and the charity Inspiring the Future can help schools and colleges make those connections, says Charlotte Lightman. More
  • Research insights
    In the second of a regular research insights feature, Amanda Taylor from the Centre for Information and Knowledge at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) rounds up a selection of recent reports on teacher recruitment and retention. More
  • Learning above all
    Executive Headteacher John Camp explores the leadership challenges of moving from federation to multi-academy trust (MAT) and why a focus on pedagogy, alongside key principles of collaboration, trust and mutual respect, must remain at the heart of the new structure. More
  • Reality check
    The government’s aim of boosting social mobility is laudable but there is no evidence to suggest that an increase in selective education is the way to do it, says Malcolm Trobe. Instead, ministers need to focus on the real solutions. More
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The government’s aim of boosting social mobility is laudable but there is no evidence to suggest that an increase in selective education is the way to do it, says Malcolm Trobe. Instead, ministers need to focus on the real solutions.

Reality check

A couple of years ago a senior civil servant speaking in a forum session of ASCL’s Council said that we should never doubt the policy intent of ministers. Not a statement I would quibble with, given that I’ve never yet met an education minister of any political persuasion who was not committed to improving the quality of education for young people.

What I have struggled with has been the fact that many of the policies they have put in place have not been evidence informed and some of them, as was fairly obvious to those of us working in education, would not deliver the outcomes the policy intended.

It was good to hear the commitment of Prime Minister Theresa May to improving social mobility and fighting the “burning injustices” that lead to inequality – a policy intent we can all surely sign up to – and we have welcomed the setting up of a cross-departmental committee to look at social mobility. It will only be through a coherent all-embracing strategy that integrates education, social policies, employment, housing and health that a real step change will be seen.

So the policy intent is laudable. However, her proposals for achieving it, as set out in the consultation Schools That Work for Everyone, have astounded the educational community and beyond. Increasing the amount of selection in English schools is not the answer and there is no evidence to support the government’s conviction that doing so will improve standards and social mobility. The creation of more selective schools may improve social mobility for a very small number of disadvantaged children but not for the majority.

We need solutions that help the many, not just the few. It makes no sense to base modern education policy on nostalgia and anecdote for a time when relatively few people went on to university and professional careers. Post-war Britain was utterly different from the Britain of today.

A global community

Our education system must prepare all young people for life in a global, digitised community while continuing to equip them with the core skills, knowledge and understanding needed for everyday life. Today, we need as many people as possible to have the high-order knowledge and skills that enable us to compete on a world stage, not an educated elite.

To give every child the education they deserve we need every school to be a good school. To achieve this demands a relentless focus on teaching and learning and a wholly appropriate curriculum. We need to ensure that as many children as possible have access to an academically rigorous curriculum that gives them a sound platform on which to base their future educational and career choices.

Unfortunately, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which the government introduced to achieve this objective, covers too narrow a range of subjects and restricts choice too much. Creative and technical subjects are completely omitted, even though these are self-evidently of crucial importance to our businesses and the future economic wellbeing of the nation. There is evidence, however, that suggests that the principle – if not the detail – is right. Recent research from data specialists Education Datalab indicates that a rigorous academic curriculum improves results and benefits disadvantaged children. The EBacc is a classic example, not uncommon in government policies, of something broadly right in principle becoming wrong because it is taken to an extreme.

Enormous progress has been made by schools and colleges up and down the country but this progress is being jeopardised by severe teacher shortages and significant real-terms cuts in funding that limit the work that schools can do to narrow the achievement gap and improve social mobility.

These are the big, system-wide issues that the government must address in order to raise standards and give every child the best possible start in life, yet ministers do not have big, robust strategies for dealing with them. Instead, they risk being distracted by a policy on increasing selection that is not the right way forward in the 21st century. Our strong message to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, is that these are the issues she must focus on and not the proposals in Schools That Work for Everyone.

‘Heat but not light’

To emphasise our willingness to work productively with the DfE on the subject of teacher supply we have offered to assist them in developing a strong teacher recruitment and retention strategy. We need the Secretary of State to promote a relationship between the DfE and the profession that ensures that we are engaged constructively in policy determination at an early stage on this and other key issues.

In their think piece, Inside-Out and Downside-Up ( Steve Munby and Michael Fullan talk about something being wrong with the big picture. They say that “policy pushes in one direction, the profession pulls in another. The result is a type of friction that produces heat but not light; plenty of activity but not enough systematic change or improvement in outcomes.”

I suspect I am not the only one to be frustrated by previous failures to listen to the experience of, and ideas from, the profession regarding education policy. We need Justine Greening to place more trust in school leaders to lead the system.

The armed forces are recognised as probably the most hierarchical, top-down of organisations but it was General Stanley McChrystal, the senior commanding officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, writing in Team of Teams about the power of delegation, who said: “I realised that the role of a senior leader is no longer that of controlling puppet master, but that of a creator of culture.” To which he later added, “When you give people responsibility, more often than not, they step up.”

Empower people

Sir David (‘Dave’) Brailsford, the person behind the international success of British cycling in the 21st century, is well known for his ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ model of quality improvement.

He also implemented an approach he called CORE, an acronym for Commitment, Ownership, Responsibility, Excellence. His philosophy is that when you give people responsibility, you empower them. Bringing his cyclists into decision-making was one of the most important cultural changes British cycling ever made and we all know the Olympic medal hauls that have followed.

There are similar messages from other walks of life. To achieve the best outcomes those with the direct responsibility for delivery need to be actively engaged in the policy determination and not seen by government merely as those whose job it is to implement those policies in practice.

To promote this approach, in our Blueprint for a Self-improving System (, we proposed an independent commission for the curriculum, one including practitioners, parents, governors, employers and politicians. We need a bold secretary of state who will introduce more independence into educational policy-making and give more responsibility to the profession to lead the education system.

That I believe is the real challenge to Justine Greening.

Malcolm Trobe is ASCL Interim General Secretary