To Improve Schools Across the UK, Let’s Learn From Each Other

Gordon Hector | Twitter

Gordon Hector is a policy consultant and former Director of Policy and Strategy for the Scottish Conservatives.

Last week, the Times published a hefty report from its Education Commission. It has an English slant but is styled as UK-wide – and it arrived at a moment of change in education systems across the UK. In Scotland, the education agencies are being restructured. In Northern Ireland, the organisation registering teachers is being axed. In Wales, there’s a brand-new curriculum. And in England, a Schools Bill is doing some technocratic tinkering.

So as each nation heads into the choppy waters of reform, what could they learn from this doorstep report? And what does it tell us about devolution itself?

Here are four suggestions.

First, Scotland is about to re-create a schools inspectorate. The Times report has a lot of useful context which should help. It paints a picture of Ofsted, the inspectorate in England, as an out-of-control bully – flawed, inconsistent, malicious. Teachers hate it, and more than is inevitable. The report suggests Ofsted balances out its method so it is still rigorous, but a bit more rounded.

In Scotland, we sorely lack independent information about schools. My local primary was last inspected in 2007. This is sub-optimal. So perhaps a risk greater than creating an Ofsted-style enforcer is creating something way too chummy and ineffectual. In its public services, Scotland is generally fond of carrots and rather shy of sticks.

But we still need the essential balance that the Times suggests: we can build something a bit smarter than Ofsted.

Second, the commission’s most heartbreaking stories are about young children arriving at school unable to pronounce their own names or eat with cutlery. So the Commission recommends an increase in funding for early years.

This is hard to disagree with – but it’s only half the picture.

We already spend huge sums on early years support. But nobody thinks the system works, in any part of the UK. Childcare is expensive, patchy, and inflexible.”

We already spend huge sums on early years support. But nobody thinks the system works, in any part of the UK. Childcare is expensive, patchy, and inflexible.

There are a host of reasons for this, from the long-term decline in childminding, to the influence of regulation on childcare, to the difficulty of recruiting and training high-quality staff. Each nation has its own funding for childcare hours which is generally universal from age 3 – which is actually quite late to start addressing educational inequalities. We then have a childcare element of Universal Credit, and also UK-wide ‘tax-free’ childcare, which is a bit weird and poorly-targeted. I’m allowed to say that because I spent months at the Department for Education writing speeches selling the thing.

These things – regulation, staffing, funding mechanisms – are structural. They are vital: without thinking about them, it’s more than likely we could spend a lot more without anything really changing. The report doesn’t really engage with this kind of market engineering, and that feels like a missed opportunity.

The third big conclusion is about teaching.

The report has some ideas on improving teaching which are all broadly sensible. The key thing is that it’s set in a narrative about how it feels to be a teacher. This suggests that each individual policy idea shouldn’t be taken out of context.

One of the ideas is for teachers to be reaccredited every 5 years, for example. This is similar to the process for doctors or social workers. The concept is that you instill a culture of ongoing development by actively confirming people in the profession.

But these other professions have mature systems backing them up, like Royal Colleges or the wider ecosystem of medical research. Some (not all) also earn a lot more than teachers.  

There is good evidence in education that accountability works, but also that if you introduce strict accountability without appropriate rewards for performing well, it can backfire. If you introduce 5-year reaccreditation as part of a suite of things that nudge teaching towards the best cultures of excellence you get in, say, teaching hospitals or top surgery units, that’s fine.

If you introduced 5-year reaccreditation in isolation, you’re just inviting a retention crisis.

The implication is to think about the complete culture in which teachers work – as the Times report does – and only mess with one aspect of pay, progression, workload and accountability with an eye on the other elements. This matters for all nations, but particularly Northern Ireland as it prepares to scrap its General Teaching Council.

And this leads to a wider hunch about the report, and my final main reaction.

More professionalised teaching is not a new idea. Nor is a broad and balanced curriculum, or stronger vocational routes, or making exams more intelligently-designed.”

More professionalised teaching is not a new idea. Nor is a broad and balanced curriculum, or stronger vocational routes, or making exams more intelligently-designed.

Which raises the question – why haven’t they happened already?

It’s because this stuff is difficult, and much of it is political.

Like many policy reports, the Times Commission is strong on what should happen, and weaker on how to get there, and assumes that things can change by people agreeing with each other on what to do.

In the real world, delivery is the challenge and almost everything about education is contested.

Take the report’s centerpiece proposal of the ‘British Baccalaureate’. It’s sensible. But it requires a very strong grip to get it right: to ensure it defines core knowledge without becoming a tick-box exercise, to reflect new skills in technology without undermining core numeracy and literacy, to offer vocational routes without diminishing academic learning, to give schools flexibility without losing all shape, to gather the system around a vision without making it a mush of the lowest common denominator.

To stop it becoming, in other words, another Curriculum For Excellence for the rest of the UK.

It’s interesting, to a Scottish reader, that CfE is barely mentioned. Maybe that was a deliberate step to avoid irritating us north of the border. It means they’ve missed out on a compelling case-study of curriculum change that establishes beyond doubt that a vision isn’t enough – you need a plan, too. To coin a phrase, devolution has taught us that education reform is a process, not an event.

That kind of cross-border pollination is where initiatives like the Times’ should head next. They deserve credit for taking on a big topic, but there is so much more to learn from 20 years of 4 systems taking different approaches.

And in this way, it’s a hint of what’s possible: redeeming the idea of devolution as a policy laboratory where the UK nations can all learn from each other. It’s a nice idea. It’s never really happened.

Perhaps the ultimate implication of this report is that it’s time to revisit the concept. 

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