A General Election wish-list

Written by: Nick Bannister | Published:
Photo: iStock

With the General Election looming ever closer, Nick Bannister asked three primary headteachers what policy commitments they want to see from the main political parties

The five years since the 2010 General Election have gone by in a blur of education revolutions, reforms – and rhetoric.

It is a period which undoubtedly qualifies as one of the most tempestuous in education in living memory.

Headteachers have been at the frontline of many policy changes in the last five years and many will be looking at Thursday, May 7, with a mix of trepidation, anticipation and certainly the hope that whoever forms the next government will commit to education policies that will build on what is good – and get rid of what doesn't work.

Paul Stone, executive headteacher at Kibworth CE Primary School near Leicester, wants to see a "further commitment to a school-led system that allows capacity to develop but more importantly a sense of trust in the profession demonstrated by clear actions, such as a review of Ofsted".

He continued: "I'd like to see policies that encourage a school inspection framework which explores opportunities for school leaders to review each other. There needs to be an intelligent framework that matches pedagogical approaches such as mastery, rather than encouraging unsecured progress."

Cross-party consensus on education policy is also a key hope for Mr Stone: "I believe we should have a cross-party education plan that we stick to. All the best-performing nations have a 10-year plan that isn't subjected to political changes but is based on pedagogical ideas and needs," he said.

"I also believe the lack of retention and recruitment of teachers is putting all educational improvement in jeopardy. Teachers are unable to fill the current demands of the role and too many people leave the profession, causing a skills vacuum.

"This needs to become a key priority for any government, which will also need to create systems for more detailed professional development within schools where staff can be released without affecting pupil attainment.

"These two issues go together. If teachers felt empowered to learn rather than feeling overburdened from change and feedback we could make exceptional progress with children. This could and should lead to the development of specialist teaching posts within primaries, along with the funding that will allow these posts to be integrated into the system."

Meanwhile, Rob Carpenter, executive headteacher of Woodhill Primary School and Foxfield Primary School in south east London, also wants to see schools working together more closely. He hopes that further investment will be made available to help make this a reality.

He explained: "My education policy reform would be to invest further funding in schools establishing school-to-school networks or 'learning hubs' that are then empowered to create systems for school challenge and support in order to supplement our current Ofsted framework.

"For example, similar to the London Challenge model, we could use NLEs (National Leaders of Education) to co-ordinate and support the development of learning hubs in similar regions or areas with the remit of securing school improvement services, leading school reviews, strengthening partnerships and networks.

"The best innovation in education comes from within the system and creating learning hubs which are mutually accountable for each others' success can be a great way to spread best practice.

"The challenge is then about how do we harness this innovation and spread this throughout the system? By encouraging schools to 'give away' their best ideas, we are forced to invent new ones and continuously review our own practice. With our current education system being such a 'patchwork' of varying practice, the danger is that individual schools become 'frayed' or isolated because we are not exposed to life beyond our own borders.

"Creating a cross-section of diverse learning hubs, could potentially expose schools to practice beyond the boundaries of a local authority or multi-academy trust, opening up new opportunities to learn from one another and grow best practice.

"The health warning to this initiative is that any government-funded initiative would need to ensure there is accountability built into any model of partnership. You cannot have partnerships that are toothless."

Julie Nash, headteacher of Cape Cornwall School in Penzance and a national executive member with the National Association of Head Teachers, urges any incoming government to take the profession with them, pointing out that the gulf between the teaching profession and political policy had never been wider.

She said: "Should education be managed by a non-specialist politician who is chasing votes and whose policy is based on personal ideology? Get a specialist body in place to manage and lead the profession forward. The NAHT has proposed a Royal College of Teaching. Consistency is key to the success of our system.

"We have had so much instability over the last five years, it's a miracle that things aren't worse than they are. This demonstrates the resilience of the profession."

She also urged the removal of grades from Ofsted outcomes: "They are humiliating and do not improve outcomes for young people. You can't fatten a pig by weighing it. Likewise, you can't improve a school system by measuring it in the way Ofsted does," she said.

"We are accountable, we know that, but the degradation and fear in the current system is counterproductive at best, damaging at worst," she added.

Ms Nash asked for investment in youth services and expert careers education because too much current expertise had been lost through budget cuts: "Schools can only do so much and be expert in so many fields. This is too specialist and fast-moving – we need our careers service back.

"We need to be real about school funding; good or better provision should be protected irrespective of school size or status. We cannot keep on getting good outcomes for students without the funding to support this. Inevitably, quality will be compromised and schools will falter as they find ways to cut costs."

Ms Nash also wants to see a commitment to recruit the best qualified teachers into the profession.
"Remember, it's a profession, not something to be done on the cheap," she said. "We want experts in pedagogy delivering lessons – inspiring, well-practised teachers who know what will motivate young people. To attract the right people to teach, you need it to be recognised as a profession, just as we do doctors and lawyers. No short cuts."

And she also hopes for a policy commitment to get rid of floor standards and place the focus on progress only.

"The playing field needs levelling to make school accountability fair and transparent. Some of the coalition changes will enable this, but the attainment measures are still a concern as they don't take account of a child's starting point." 

  • Nick Bannister is a freelance education writer.

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