Something better change!

“Something’s happening and it’s happening right now, ain’t got time to wait” The Stranglers 1977

As I write I am listening to 3 minutes thirty seven seconds of pure punk anger from 1977.  Like the punk movement from which it was born, it was a rallying cry for the times.  Raging against the system and the establishment… a plea for recognition and identity in a society in transition.  As a scruffy 5 year old, growing up on a council estate in Bromsgrove, it resonated.  43 years on, it seems as relevant now as it did then.

Covid-19 has exposed significant weaknesses in the policy and decision making elements of our government.    The timing of Covid-19 couldn’t have been worse, 10 years of austerity and a systematic dismantling of society’s safety nets and support mechanisms… we entered 2020 with the hope of a new decade, but like a hyena tracking an injured animal Covid-19 was waiting to pounce. In Education?  It has exposed that the DfE just don’t understand how the education system and more specifically schools work.  This isn’t new, many would argue that it has been like that for years.    

However, the response of the education system to the Covid-19 crisis has been extraordinary.  It has high-lighted the best of the profession – agility, adaptability, resilience and a determination to do the best by our young people and their communities.

I am fortunate to work across a number of networks that enable me to learn from and support many amazing Schools and School Trusts, and their leaders.  Every week I facilitate a series of zoom calls with headteachers and trust leaders, everyday I hear something inspirational from the work schools are doing.  One such network is Whole Education.  For ten years this network has collaborated with schools and trusts across the country… with leaders and teachers who are passionate about whole education, who believe that education is so much more than the narrow set of metrics by which schools, staff and students are judged. 

We have discussed the issues that they are grappling with, the problems that they need to solve on a daily basis in response to the crisis, sharing the burden and the responsibility.  On every call we have also discussed the bigger issues and the possible solutions:

  • Accountability.  In February, Headteachers Roundtable launched ‘PauseOfsted’, a few weeks later, Covid-19 arrived and Ofsted Paused.  The question now is what do we do next?  With at least another year of disruption, what role do Ofsted play?  Have we missed them?  Accountability is important, very few would argue with that but there is the opportunity for a serious rethink of the Why? The How? And the What? It still feels as if Ofsted operates with the intent of catching schools out, identifying the feckless and the lazy, ready to expose their deliberate weaknesses to the world.  Little attention is paid to context and Headteachers pay for it with their careers.  It is time for an accountability system based on appreciation, nuanced and subtle, it must create collective responsibility networks within geographical locations.  No less challenging but with a focus on development not judgement.  Ofsted should use the hiatus to hold up the intent, implementation and impact mirror to its own work
  • Assessment.  Like Ofsted, Covid-19 stopped the exam season dead in its tracks.   Instead we rely on teacher assessment to award qualifications, a temporary fix but possibly a longer term solution.  First we must deal with a bigger issue, the overloading of the data system as a measure not just of learning, but also of performance, children, teachers, subject departments, schools, trusts and regions are all judged by the use of the same dataset.  Our need for comparison has bent the data system horribly out of shape… it has driven competition between schools and led to questionable practice and pedagogy.  We must reflect on our need to use it to compare and judge.  Assessment should be a measure of learning, instead it has become a stick to beat us with
  • What are schools for? We assume there is one answer and that everyone knows it, often dictated by the points above.  A Covid-19 silver lining has been the way in which schools have worked with and developed stronger links with their communities.  Schools are, and have always been about so much more than the exam outcomes and the Ofsted category.  Our desire to compare and publicise, for the benefit of parental choice, coupled with austerity has created an impossible situation for many schools.  It’s a game many cannot win, spending years in categories 3 and 4, with the simplistic view that this is because the quality of education and leadership is poor.  Viewed through the lens of an Ofsted report few actually read, they are unloved by their communities, who have the evidence to hold them to account.  During this crisis many of these communities have come to value the care, attention and kindness that these schools have shown, going out of their way to support children, families and parents.  Of course this work is not new, in many cases it is required to ensure that children get to school, but it is now much more appreciated.  We must not forget that, we must nurture it.

We exist in extraordinary times,  many issues loom large, not just Covid-19, Equality and Brexit too.  In times of crisis, we, those of us predisposed to, are given permission to voice our thoughts on something different.  In doing so we often find ourselves taking oppositional stances, the advocates for change v. The protectors of the current.  Covid-19 has set the platform on fire, we must react in the short term but we must also decide what to do next: rebuild the platform as it was? Or, build something new and different?  This is not the time for opposition, it is a time for collaboration, for selecting the best, most stable bits of what we have whilst deciding how best to build something new. 

We must not look up, for others to do this for us, we will be disappointed.  Instead we must look to each other as leaders, to celebrate the rich diversity of our education system and its dedicated staff. To appreciate, learn and adapt.

James Pope – @popejames

Co-executive Lead of Whole Education – @wholeeducation

Director of InspirEDucate – @EInspir

Founder of HeadsUp – @HeadsUp4HTS

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