The National Education Trust is an independent charitable foundation
leading and promoting excellent practice and innovation in education.
|The Whitehall signal box
Click here for a print version of this article.
And so another school year begins. You don't have to be Mystic Meg to sense that it looks likely to be an interesting one.
Those working outside education won't quite get the way those of us inside are driven by the counter-intuitive rhythms of the September-to-July cycle. But here we go again, refreshed by holidays and then too often consumed with post-results neurosis and start-of-term heart flutters.
This time it feels as if the education landscape beyond school has changed significantly - all that policy stuff that we often choose to ignore.
It isn't just that the summer's shameful rioting raised questions about the values of schools and the quality of our work (a theme brilliantly explored by NET Leading Thinker, Spokey Wheeler). It's more that an ideological approach to schools and universities - quickly enacted and much-discussed - is now about to make its impact.
Of course, as always, in our individual schools and colleges the essential ingredients will be reassuringly familiar: students and staff in classrooms and corridors. Amid times of upheaval - within and beyond school - these are the routines, the givens, that we cling on to. They are why we do the job.
But eighteen months in, with an Education Secretary on a mission, this is the year when we're likely to be peering out from within our own schools looking at an educational panorama that's spinning giddily around us, like the view from a teenage Waltzer.
It's not the 'free school' programme I'm talking about. The opening at the start of term of a handful of 'independent state-funded schools' is likely to prove, in my jaded opinion, about as significant as a fly on an elephant's buttock. These schools have received disproportionate extensive media coverage, have siphoned resources away from other schools, and appear, from my perhaps myopic perspective in Suffolk, to be built on very limp principles of social mobility. But let's ignore them because, as I say, they aren't the main story.
More significant is the way the academy programme has gained momentum, with secondary schools toppling over themselves to sign up for the freedoms associated with academy status.
Much nonsense has been written about the impact this is already making on standards. It's rubbish, of course, because to compare old academies (designed specifically to energise educational provision in areas of social deprivation) with new academies (frequently dash-for-cash ventures) is like comparing a wristwatch with a cricket-box and asking which is better.
Instead it's the symbolism that matters.
If the government's view is right, then injecting market forces into education will crank up standards. There's a double-think in this, of course, because whilst the talk is all about autonomy and freedom, the reality is that the levers of influence are being tugged mercilessly from the centre as if the Fat Controller has run amok in the Whitehall signal-box.
Using performance tables - especially the EBac - as a crude mechanism for getting schools to change curriculum direction is something we thought that our school leaders - a generation raised on the vision and values modules of NPQH - would resist with quiet strength.
In reality, many schools have junked their vocational provision or - more scandalously - their creative subjects, in order to nudge their way up the EBac tables.
I still don't get that. A decent education ought to be able to provide our fourteen-year-olds with an excellent thorough grounding in History, Geography and at least one modern language and then allow them to begin the process of following the pathways that will motivate and enthral them. Fourteen years of a general education should be a solid foundation for what comes next.
That was the accepted orthodoxy until fifteen months ago, and it's depressing
to see how quickly some schools are heading back to a 1950s curriculum.
So this will be the year when we see whether market forces are indeed the answer to our educational achievement and whether free schools, academies, and a narrowed academic curriculum raise standards.
And we'll also see how school leaders respond to their alleged 'freedoms', whether they will seize them and do what's in the best interests of their youngsters, or be battered by the fickle pressure of reputation and performance tables to bend to other influences.
As I say, it looks set to be an interesting year.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, and a NET Leading Thinker
|Phone (44) (0)1494 568869|
|Follow us on
||Join our mailing list
||Buy NET products online
|Copyright © National Education Trust 2013
The National Education Trust asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this web site. Unless otherwise specified, all material on this website may be used for non-commercial purposes, on condition that the source is acknowledged. The National Education Trust is not responsible for the content of external websites.