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Thoughts re Nicky Morgan’s White Paper of 18th March 2016 – Guest blog by Dr Bob Sproson

April 20, 2016

Dr Bob Sproson worked in mainstream education as a history and English teacher in schools in Nottingham and Lightcliffe. He subsequently moved into education ‘outside the mainstream’ (CHE, special and alternative provision) as teacher, then head of school and head of service (but always teaching). In 2010 he moved to be Director of Education for the charity Red Balloon. His professional passion has always been how adults build appropriate relationships with young people, relationships that enable them to grow as individuals.


There are some very sensible ideas here: improvement periods for schools, ‘better’ teacher training delivered by a mix of the ‘best’ higher education institutions and school-led providers (learning by doing the job makes a lot of sense), improved Continuing Professional Development with more research being published by practitioners (I love action research) and creating a parent portal, praise where it is due.

I’m struggling a tad with:

Do we really know what a good school leader is – does one size fit all as far as leadership goes?

  1. What does this government see as the role for local authorities?
  2. Is turning all schools into academies really the panacea for education – what of the ragged edges and what is the way forward?

The White Paper talks about ‘re-balancing incentives in the accountability system’ so that ‘great leaders’ are encouraged to work in challenging schools and areas. I am unsure whether any research has been carried out into the success rates of leaders moving from successful schools to struggling schools. My own, admittedly limited, experience is that such people often struggle. Within current definitions a ‘great leader’ is bound to be someone who is achieving ‘excellence in her/his school. There are examples where the excellence is identified through progress rather than attainment, but it will most often be the latter. In my career working with those young people who have not ‘fitted’ into the mainstream system, I have often found that leaders of high attaining schools have little skill in relating to the disaffected (be that student or family) – maybe different skill sets are required?

I worked in Cambridgeshire for some 30 years and witnessed many efforts to improve those schools that consistently struggle to meet the required measures (be that 5 A* to Cs or success at 8A and 8P). They have met with little success – what a surprise. Those schools serve the housing estates or areas with high unemployment levels and myriad social ‘issues’ (it is tough being poor in a very affluent area). I am not of the view (for a second) that students from these areas will never ‘achieve’. But I am of the view that some realism is needed, and that for heads and teachers in those schools continually asking them to meet what might just be the unattainable is pretty depressing. Whilst we insist on measuring and comparing schools, there will always be failures. Rhodes Boyson told the House of Commons that he would not rest until all children were above average; the House failed to explain to him that, therefore, he would never rest.

I am confused as to the role, if any, that is perceived for local authorities. Mainstream schools are to be responsible for the education of students in alternative provision, responsibility for school improvement is to transfer from local authorities to ‘school led’ systems. All schools ‘must’ move out of local authority control. Is this to be the end of local authority influence in education? Seemingly they will still coordinate in-year admissions and handle the administration of the independent admissions appeals. I am not wedded to the notion that local authorities must retain functions, but they must have a clarity of role, and of course appropriate funding to carry out their tasks. Any conversations that I have with anyone working for a LA currently are pretty doom-laden.

Lastly the whole academy issue. I am not opposed ‘per se’ to academies; what worries me, though, is that many academies appear to want to replicate the management layers that local authorities have been criticised for, thus creating new layers of bureaucracy. Through Multi Academy Trusts and other ‘federations’ I see both a growth in the number of managers and ‘executive headteachers’ and a growth in their salaries. I always felt it to be wrong that local authority executives came to be awarded salaries in excess of £150,000 (I rather thought they went into public service). We now have a system whereby those who remain are still earning those salaries but, increasingly executive heads are outstripping even them. I know leadership is important, but do we need huge numbers of ‘leaders’ and should they be earning what are seemingly outrageous levels when their salaries are compared to, say, a teaching assistant who earns an average of £15,000?

My working world has always been with those students who do not fit what mainstream education provides. It can be difficult and it can be expensive to educate those students. I once sat in a meeting with headteachers where one of the group described the students who might come my way as ‘see you next Tuesdays’. In fairness most heads do not share that view and want to provide ‘something decent’, but, without an advocate for those students, heads may be tempted to opt for cheap options or, in the worst cases, they do not admit students in the first place or suggest to parents/carers that they simply remove the problem by opting for home education. * Making schools responsible for excluded / non-attending students makes some sense in terms of trying to ensure we reduce the number of CME (children missing education), but there are distinct dangers.

I started out by apportioning deserved praise. I do feel, though, that there remains something of the Titanic and deckchairs in response to the current educational debate. When I started out as a teacher I was frequently frustrated that staff meetings focussed upon practicalities and that never did we really debate what was happening in the school – what this education ‘thing’ was all about. In 1970, Alvin Toffler in his book ‘Future Shock’ posed the question as to why we were still utilising an education system that had been developed in the days of the Industrial Revolution and which seemed to him to be modelled upon a factory system. In the late 1980s I listened as Ted Wragg reminded an audience of teachers that they should be preparing their students for life in the twenty first century and pondered whether Rip Van Winkle would have noticed any real difference in a classroom had he awoken after his slumber. ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ (variously attributed to Anthony Robbins, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and others) appears pertinent. Just changing who provides the education or what the schools are called or seeking to get all students to meet pre-set academic targets offers little in terms of developing an education system that meets the needs of young people. Starting by looking at the work of the ‘Centre for Real Learning’ at Winchester University would be one of many good places to start.

* I am making no criticism whatsoever here of home education, but in my current position I am often contacted by parents who have been sent unwillingly down this route.

One Comment
  1. elisabethgoodman permalink

    I came across this YouTube video of a talk on Education Paradigms given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson – I thought it made the point very well too!

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