When the opportunity came up to address the Liberal Democrat Conference, representing the Headteachers’ Roundtable on my doorstep, it was an experience that I couldn’t turn down. To offer perspective on the debate direct from the chalk face.
One of the benefits of previous career turns means I am not unused to speaking at educational conferences, however it quickly dawned on me that this was very different! A conversation with my mum had reminded me I spent much of the first 10 years of my life leaflet-dropping for the Liberals around Worcestershire villages in the 1970s, a fact which of course I mentioned in a blatant attempt to impress my audience. It seemed to go down well!
As a history teacher it felt appropriate to start with an historical observation; next month is nearly 40 years since James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech often regarded as having begun the discussion about the nature and purpose of public education. Before Callaghan, prime ministers simply didn’t make speeches about education but the breaking of that tradition marked the start of 40 years of legislation which brought the role of government much closer to the daily practice of education. The eventual outcome, intentional or not has been to leave those of us in schools/colleges who devote our lifetimes work to the education and wellbeing of children increasingly dependent on the changing whims and fortunes of political leaders often meaning our professional and moral compass is challenged and subject to change every 4 years.
In describing to the meeting the origins and make-up of the Headteachers Roundtable it became clear that our non-party political perspective and broad range of sectors and experiences is hugely valuable and empowering in allowing a collective voice to be heard independent of particular party dogma.
Next week we will publish details of an Alternative Green Paper. It attempts to show there is another way. We believe both the recent White and Green Papers fundamentally missed the point; they largely addressed political imperatives rather than the necessities for an educational system that enables all to thrive.
Central to our thinking is the need for policies focused on pupils’ education; for every pupil to have a high quality education irrespective of social class, ethnicity or geographical location. Whilst many quote this rhetoric, it can only be achieved by focusing on what matters most. Changes to the school system – local authority maintained to academy or comprehensive to selective – are matters of preference not ways of improving pupils’ education and we believe are highly distracting to the core business.
The Alternative Green Paper “Enabling all to flourish and thrive” outlines principles and makes practical policy suggestions rooted in a common sense approach. I offered the conference my interpretation of those principles.
- We recognise the importance of shared responsibility – there must be a move away from cliff edged high stakes approaches which punish certain cohorts, promote perverse behaviours or narrow curriculum.
- There should fair and effective means for determining – and there is a difference – System and School effectiveness and improvement.
Recruitment and retention
- We need widespread acceptance of the current/ pending crisis: an understanding that it presents differently in different sectors and different locations, requiring different solutions.
- We need centralised and coherent entry routes into profession.
- To safeguard the profession going forward we need the rewards, training, recognition and representation commensurate with a valued profession to attract and retain the highest calibrate of staff at all levels.
- We guard against division but call for a coherent system that is fairly funded and resourced, acknowledging the growth of academisation in some sectors but not all as well as the effectiveness of many non-academised systems that do not need structural change to secure improvement.
- Clear roles and coherance around the existing structures: RSCs, TSAs, Ofsted.
- Not just a commitment to but delivery of fair funding and equitable distribution of resources
We are all current working headteachers. We voice the reality of our collective experience and the impact of decisions made by politicians often many miles away from the children whose lives are affected. We need a move away from education policy that is driven by the personal experiences and preferences of a few but instead …
- Real dialogue with those who know and understand the profession as it is now.
- Engagement with the wealth of evidence around what works, in what circumstances and why.
- Commitment to a long term, adequately resourced solution for education that ensures challenge and high performance for all.
We genuinely believe that most politicians, like those of us in the profession, want to make a difference and want the best for our young people however we believe that for the future of our profession and the benefit of generations to come we have to find a more holistic and collaborative way of creating long term approaches that do not make children the sacrificial lambs of political fortune.
It is a testament to the collective common sense of the HTRT that these ideas were well received with the promise of further discussion to come. However, if the range of questioning following the panel was anything to go by, the potential policy scope for any party is broad and varied. The challenge for all of us will not just be in the educational sense of the ideas or the compelling weight of evidence behind them. It will also be how we work collectively, with our communities to take them beyond sympathetic educational or even political audiences to capture the self-interest of a broad and varied voting population.
By Caroline Barlow Headteacher of Heathfield Community College, East Sussex and a member of the HTRT Core Group.
Caoline is on twitter as @BarlowCaroline
Caroline was representing Headteachers’ Roundtable and talking about their forthcoming Alternative Green Paper (released on the 23rd September 2016)