1 March 2023

The last thing our schools need right now is more reform


Children thrive in calm, quiet classrooms where they can concentrate fully on the task in-hand without distraction from poor behaviour or, heaven forfend, their mobile phones. Giving something your full attention, with as little distraction around you as possible, is liberating – and the same can be said for schools themselves.

The education system at the moment is emerging from a period of great reform (Gove et al) and great disruption (Covid) into a period where attention can really be paid to how to make incremental, marginal gains everywhere rather than having to constantly adapt to whatever disruption is heading down the line. At the moment that next potential disruption looks like a Labour government with an education policy informed by the radical views of the National Education Union (NEU), but it doesn’t have to be like this.

Sometimes a fervour for educational reform is reflective of a general feeling of crisis around education. It can be argued that if the reform is focused on genuinely improving the education system in the long term, then a degree of medium-term disturbance is a necessary evil. The shockwaves of any major change begin at the Department for Education (DfE) and filter out through primary legislation, guidelines, statutory instruments, inspection frameworks, changes to the National Curriculum and new exam specifications. Those changes then make their way into classrooms through time spent by teachers on new lesson plans, paperwork and in training sessions on new initiatives. A flap of a Secretary of State’s wings can create a hurricane of work for already over-stretched teachers. 

Generally speaking, the timeframe from the beginning of the reforms process to seeing changes begin to happen in the classroom is somewhere between two and four years. Gove became Education Secretary in 2010 and the first major wave of free schools opened in 2012 whilst his curriculum reforms really kicked in with the new National Curriculum in 2014. This timeframe means that a government can expect to implement one full set of reforms within a term. That means that with regular changes of government – or a restless, New Labour type government constantly coming up with further reforms – you end up with a great churn of reform and institutional change.

Having emerged from a period of unprecedented and unplanned turbulence caused by the pandemic now is the time for a period of consistency and calm. Education does not top the list of most important issues for Britons, in fact it often languishes at the bottom, as in this recent Ipsos polling. It is not because people do not care about education, rather it is because parents are generally happy with the schools their children attend. There simple isn’t the acute sense of crisis around British education that there is around, say, the NHS – even if the NEU is trying to create one with the narrative around their recent strikes. 

Proof that some continuity is possible from one government to the next can be seen in the way that the coalition government picked up Labour’s ‘city academies’ policy and expanded it so that all schools were invited to become academies with the 2010 Academies Act. This move heralded an era of experimentation, as existing schools were no longer governed by local authorities and new free schools could be established by interested parties. We saw the birth of the Michaela Community School on one end of the pedagogical spectrum and School 21 at the other. The New Schools Network burgeoned to support innovation whilst grassroots organisations like ResearchEd empowered teachers to take ownership of this new and exciting direction for schools.

It now feels as though this period of change has come of age. We have had over a decade of trying new things and sharing what works and now we are seeing those successful changes embedded on a wide scale. Where once a school like Michaela was an outlier, now many secondary schools have borrowed the ideas on which it was founded and adapted them for their own context. Academies and free schools have a remarkable amount of freedom to change and to deviate from the pedagogical norms but we, as a profession, have become increasingly good at sharing good practice and borrowing good ideas from other schools. This means that most schools, despite having the freedom to sit at the extremes, have come to the conclusion that fairly traditional policies combined with a knowledge-rich curriculum lead to the best outcomes for students.

So far, Keir Starmer has been relatively quiet on his plans for primary and secondary education. It may be that we have not yet reached ‘education week’ in the Labour press office’s grid, or it may be that he believes battles elsewhere are more clear-cut and more urgent. My fear is that this vacuum will not be filled by a pragmatic and slow-moving approach to education policy but, rather, by the loudest (and most financially beneficial) voice in the room – the NEU. 

The NEU recently funded the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Schools, Learning and Assessment as a way of laundering their own radical views on education through a cross-party group. The report they produce will be presented to Labour as a sensible basis for education policy making and its opponents will doubtless be branded Tory stooges for suggesting that the status quo does not demand radical change. I sincerely hope I am wrong, because I cannot imagine staying in post as a classroom teacher if I am forced to endure a period of reform which, to my mind, would actively damage education in this country. 

What is needed is a much more sensible plan, a more pragmatic plan, a plan that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A good place to start would be figuring out how to address uneven working conditions for teachers.

Many teachers, especially when speaking about their reasons for striking, have said that they are chronically overworked. A recent tweet from a wellbeing consultant suggested teachers might benefit from taking a 20-minute lunch break and finishing work at 8pm. It was a very interesting litmus test. To some teachers (myself included) it was completely ridiculous, we already have hour-long lunch breaks and manage to switch off from work at a reasonable time most days. To others, however, it was something to aspire to over the next term, a sunlit uplands compared to their current situation.

Given that this complete imbalance exists between teaching being a perfectly reasonable public sector job on the one hand, and a dystopian burnout machine on the other, it does raise the question of what more the DfE could be doing to address both excessive workload and the poor management of schools which creates it. For me, that’s where any incoming Education Secretary should be starting – not adding more fuel to the fire by tearing up our current approach at the behest of the unions.

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Adam Smith is a primary school teacher in central London and founder of the Campaign for Evidence-Informed Teaching.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.