On July 15th, five members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable met Tristram Hunt at the House of Commons to discuss our Education Manifesto. Our original meeting had had to be re-scheduled when it clashed with maximum media fall-out from the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ situation. Hearing the news that Michael Gove had been replaced at the DFE on the day of our meeting, we fully anticipated another push-back but we were in luck. In between division bells sounding for TH to rush out to vote and a Radio5 Live interview to comment on the end of the Gove era, we had a good hour of discussion.
Having read our manifesto, the Shadow Secretary said that he agreed with most of it and certainly the general thrust. We acknowledged that we’re delighted to see that a National Baccalaureate is a key Labour proposal, completely in line with our own manifesto.
In our discussions we focused on a few key areas.
QTS: We agreed that it was great to see Labour giving teacher qualifications a high-profile push. However, we also expressed some concern about the over-simplification in the headline data where ‘unqualified’ seems to wrap up teachers who are not-yet qualified with those who are permanently unqualified. We felt this needed more clarification and care – especially given that the % of teachers working in schools on a path to QTS may well rise given the pattern of recruitment through Teach Direct schemes. TH acknowledged the point but clearly Labour feel this is a strong line to pursue in political terms.
Licensing: In discussion, it was absolutely clear that TH wants the same things we want – an entitlement to world-class CPD throughout every teacher’s career. We talked about how to make this more carrot than stick and reflected back the perception that licensing has a definite stick feel to it. We urged him to present it as something teachers would line up to vote for. We discussed alternatives such as licensing Heads or schools to keep teachers up-to-date using the very best evidence-driven CPD processes. We also talked about the need to separate out the issue of removing inadequate teachers – we already have the tools for that. Our view is that it’s a failure of school leadership for weak teachers to remain in the system – so any policy needs to take account of that without polluting the important process of supporting career teachers to develop more widely.
Our impression was that TH is very open to discussion on the details . He certainly wants the profession to lead in this area and would support a College of Teaching . However, there are a couple of realities that he has to deal with:
1. Politically, it seems that Licensing offers the means to talk tough regarding teaching standards – a positive effect according to polls . Winning over teachers with softer language could be counterproductive relative to the politics of winning over the electorate in general. A painful situation but one that has to be faced. (NB: This was not said explicitly but it was the impression we gained, reading between the lines – and getting elected does precede implementing policies)
2. Government policy has to tackle the scenario where the leadership at school or local level isn’t adequate for leading improvement at the standard needed – so there needs to be a policy safety net that keeps minimum standards high. The autonomy-accountability balance is harder to find in some places. It’s not enough to base policy around the actions of effective leaders; it has to deal with the less effective leaders who need clear guidance and structures. TH seemed to suggest that licensing could be a way to lever improvement where it is needed – forcing certain actions to be taken in the area of CPD that might not happen otherwise.
OfSTED: We discussed OfSTED only briefly. TH was clear that it would be unwise and inappropriate to challenge the independence of the regulator – especially in opposition. That’s a relationship that needs a clean slate to build on if they get into power. However, to ensure OfSTED’s independence free from short-term political interference, we pitched the idea of having a Board that conducted an open recruitment process for any future HMCI position. TH noted this and we discussed that perhaps greater Select Committee scrutiny of the process would be a good first move. We touched on the need to look at the middle tier issue and the Blunkett Report is clearly the blueprint they are working towards.
Harmonising Freedoms: This was a brief discussion as, basically, TH agrees with us on this and said Labour policy would be to move in this direction giving all schools the same freedoms regarding curriculum, funding, timing of the school day and year and more. Regarding PRP, we acknowledged that different HTRT members have different views – but that it should be legal for a school to follow national pay and conditions and not have PRP if that is what they feel is in their school’s best interests. Currently that is illegal. We suggested that unions should be at liberty to propose a joint set of agreed pay and conditions that schools could adopt if they so wished – without the PRP element. Notes were taken but no commitments made.
Recruitment Fund: We touched on this idea for a few minutes, exploring the mechanics of how it would work in practice. We suggested that it would be equivalent to the process of capital grant bids: a pot is created, bidding rounds are held and decisions taken on the basis of greatest need – or the most convincing cases. Schools, Academy chains or Authorities could submit bids for additional funds to offer incentives to Heads and/or teachers in shortage subjects to teach in parts of the country where recruitment presents a significant challenge. We felt that TH listened to us on this – but, as ever, the source of the funding for the fund was the big question – especially as universal free school meals seems to be gaining political traction, sucking up the available resources.
Levels: Our final area of discussion was around levels; even though this is outside the scope of our manifesto, it was an opportunity to explore the complexities of a national assessment framework. We tried to get across our sense that the current system has buckled under the weight placed on it, citing examples from KS1 and KS3 where different levels are awarded in different contexts (for the same thing) and curriculum provision narrows around the assessment framework. We suggested that many schools were seeing the demise of levels as an opportunity to re-connect with assessment at the level of core principles and that TH should embrace this. His concern derives from the comments made to him by other Heads who are unhappy that levels are being scrapped without a viable alternative – the potential vacuum is leading to anxiety in some quarters. He also suggested that it would cause issues for children moving around the country and for parents if each school runs a different system.
We tried to press the broader view that this is a highly technical area that politicians should not seek to influence one way or another. All that government needs to do is say schools need a) an assessment system that parents understand and b) a mechanism to ensure standards are benchmarked nationally such that aspirations and standards are continually raised. We argued that NC levels don’t actually do this. TH was clearly interested; he was hearing a different perspective and was starting to process the message we were giving. It certainly sowed a seed for further discussion.
Overall, we left satisfied that we’d packed a lot of discussion into a hour’s meeting. The party machinery won’t give much scope for new policies to be developed between now and May 2015 but we were encouraged that, away from some of the policy headlines where pre-election politics dictate the message, there is a definite willingness to thrash out the details in relation to how things would work in practice in schools.
Tom Sherrington on behalf of Heads’ Roundtable.
Also Present: Ros McMullen, Ruth Whymark, Jon Chaloner, Chris McShane.
Tagged: Tristram Hunt