Politicians may be working hard to emphasise the importance of quality teaching and leadership in schools, but neither can thrive without the right framework
Two politicians from opposing parties were singing the same song last month. Speaking at the North of England Education Conference, Tristram Hunt, the relatively new shadow education secretary, bemoaned: “The relentless focus on structural change in our schooling system” mainly through opening large numbers of academies and free schools.
He said if elected Labour would adopt a different approach, emphasising teacher quality, symbolised by his announcement that teachers would have to be regularly relicensed.
A day later, at the same conference in Nottingham, David Laws, the Liberal Democrat minister for education, concluded his speech by remarking: “The subject of teaching and leadership is hugely important, but is too often neglected in favour of more ideological debates about structural reform”.
I’m not sure whether any of his Conservative colleagues in government noticed that dig, which was doubtless part of the ongoing process of differentiating his party from them prior to next year’s election.
The point that both Hunt and Laws were making is a strong one. There has been an obsession with changing structures over the past 25 years involving all governments, mostly in the direction of trying to make state-funded schools look like private schools – an impossible task given the totally different contexts.
The research clearly shows that individual teacher quality has a much greater impact on student achievement than differences between schools. There is no convincing evidence that any particular type of school in terms of governance structure or ownership produces either superior performance or more innovation when all relevant factors are taken into account and like is rigorously compared with like. So, to that extent, these two politicians are making a correct judgment.
However there’s a huge risk in leaving it at that. Organisation matters. Everyone with experience of collective activities (which means practically all of us) knows that the way something is organised has a big impact on what is achieved. I’ve recently been reading about the disastrously failed part-privatisation of the London Underground in the noughties. As the managing director, Tim O’Toole, wrote afterwards for the New Statesman, where you have high costs and a clear public interest “one is best advised to adopt a structure that is transparent and simple”. How right he was.
Our school structures are anything but transparent and simple and there have been enough scandals, questionable practice and warnings from the National Audit Office to ring loud alarm bells.
But talking about teaching quality – though there are controversies involved – is less contentious than structural issues, so there is a temptation to play the latter down to avoid becoming embroiled in too much conflict.
This is not a new situation and it has generated a tension particularly within Labour for many years – it was known as the “standards v structures” debate. Faced with large structural changes attempted by the Conservatives under John Major, Labour went into the 1997 election proclaiming the importance of standards not structures.
Under Tony Blair, within a very few years they had acquired an interest in structural change and introduced the academies programme as well as greatly expanding the specialist schools initiative (remember that?). Now they seem to be returning to their former stance, promoting standards over structures.
The Conservatives, determined to reshape the system according to their free-market and traditionalist vision, have never been troubled by this distinction and have consistently promoted change across the whole spectrum of organisation and provision.
This is hugely important in the context of the current extreme atomisation of the school system with its many distinct types of school, unparalleled among comparable countries internationally, which is generating very large problems of both equity and manageability as well as great complexity and instability. Having two starkly different regimes of funding and oversight and totally separate legal bases for broadly similar schools only adds to the confusion.
It is an exceptional situation which presents formidable challenges to political parties that it would be irresponsible of them to duck, simply in order to secure a quieter life. They should plan to pick up the pieces of a fractured and chaotic system, ensure that all state-funded schools are on a level playing-field, inject coherence and order into the provision so that the options available can be clearly understood by all parents (and, where relevant, learners) and allow significant decisions to be made at local level.
There are different routes to achieving the coherent and transparent arrangements we so urgently need – I have proposed phasing out the individual funding agreements or contracts which promote fragmentation – but an essential starting-point is that, while excellent teaching and quality leadership are of the essence, neither can fully work their magic in a dysfunctional, capricious and inequitable organisational framework.