We must hope for a reduction in the role of central government, which has attempted to take control of everything since 2010 but cannot cope. I have worked regularly with the Department for Education and, although individual civil servants are often excellent, they change jobs frequently and, for people who work in schools, it is always impossible to identify the person in charge of taking decisions. I recently wanted the answer to a simple question and wrote to the three civil servants I thought might be able to help. All three responded by diverting my email to six different people. All six responded by saying they were on leave.
So, this means winding down the level of control from the centre, starting with the Schools Bill (every single state school being forced to become an Academy and then join a chain of ten of more Academies) and reform to teacher training (every single provider forced to apply for permission to run the Qualified Teacher Status course, the main teacher training course in England, by filling in a four-question form. So far the majority have failed….many by one mark).
The biggest threat to the future quality of our schools is the shortage of teachers. Unless this issue is dealt with, no other school improvement measures will work. We need to return to teachers a sense of autonomy that makes the job satisfying – too many feel they are having to work under instruction from central government and a multi-academy trust. We need to further improve discipline because a small number of unruly, unmanageable children drive good teachers out of the profession.
Secretaries of State are typically in post for two years or less. They can only do so much. So, it is important to focus on the things which are bad about our system and not lose too much sleep over the rest.
Compared to other successful countries there are two things which are bad about the education system in England – the under-performance of the bottom third of pupils at secondary schools and failure to develop good vocational courses for those aged 16-21.
The bottom third, of whom the least successful are white working class boys as well as those with special needs, require a more relevant curriculum, specialist teaching and a greater focus on reading and writing. Too many leave school at 16 with limited motivation and poor literacy. Many of these children would have benefited from more high quality reading lessons when they were aged 3-7.
Those who do not take A-levels and go to university often move to a further education college to do a vocational course. The introduction of T-levels is a good idea and must be allowed time to evolve into something which meets the country’s needs and leads to good jobs. But T-levels are difficult, so there is a large group of young people who need other high quality courses that help fill the skills gaps the country faces – such as digital literacy, software creation, data analysis and medical technology. The funding of FE colleges needs to improve.
Yes, we will continue to argue about the school curriculum and public exams, but in fact most of our schools and universities in England are doing a good job. What matters for them is a robust economy that can fund education well.
Professor Barnaby Lenon
Dean of Education, University of Buckingham