Back in the day King Arthur had a problem. Bickering barons made a great deal of fuss about who was the biggest cheese. When they sat down together for a friendly chat things soon came to head because on your traditional rectangular table everyone would vie to sit nearest the king – the further away you sat the less important you were. The solution? A round table! The table has no head and everyone gets to feel valued and special. Ah, if only all life’s predicaments could be fixed with furniture: IKEA would have a seat at the United Nations.
The table has since become a powerful symbol for equality. How can you have a hierarchy if everyone is equal? Indeed. Small wonder then that the group of Twitter heads have chosen Headteachers’ Roundtable as their name. There is a small issue here though. Roundtables are synonymous with equality; Heads, not so much. Schools are, by their very nature, hierarchical with a single point of accountability for all that happens within them. As teachers we know and accept this. Some of us aspire to the stresses and strains of headship, some don’t. But regardless of our position within the hierarchy of the school we work at, don’t we all have an equal right and responsibility to have our say? Much of the resentment that teachers feel comes from the fact that their views are either ignored or marginalised. Clearly much of the resentment headteachers feel comes from a similar place. So is gathering a group of headteachers around a table, no matter its shape, the best solution to what ails us? Why is it that Headteachers have the monopoly on what’s right for education in the UK?
Like many teachers, the idea of a grassroots opposition to the lack of consultation and anti-teacher rhetoric which spews out of Whitehall is attractive. I’m all for the existence of a pressure group with the clout to get Twigg and various other toothless politicos to listen to them. We all want to put checks and balances in the way of the executive arm of government no matter our view on politics or the mandate of the party (or parties) in power. But how representative are the views that the Heads Roundtable are putting forward?
For those unaware of their 6 point plan, here it is:
- Schools should be assessed in a range of ways, not just judged by the numbers achieving specific grades and levels in examinations and tests respectively;
- Ofsted should be replaced by local partnerships that would hold schools to account and help them to improve;
- The curriculum and assessment should be taken out of political control and given to an independent agency (under licence for 20 years);
- The government should encourage small families of local schools in preference to large national chains;
- “Norm referencing” in exam grading is not fair, ie capping the number of students who can achieve a certain grade. There shouldn’t be a cap on what individual pupils can achieve;
- School accountability measures should encourage collaboration between schools and explicitly develop systems leadership.
Some of these you might agree with, some you may not. But it’s important to remember that this plan derives from the collective wisdom of 12 people. I don’t for a moment doubt their sincerity and accept that they believe they are acting in the best interests of the students for whom they are responsible. But is that enough? That’s what most of us would claim, isn’t it?
Anyway, that’s the moaning over. For what it’s worth, and in the spirit of constructive criticism, here is my critique of the plan:
1. We’d really need to know what the alternative ways schools might be assessed are. Rightly or wrongly, the most important thing schools do is churn out students qualified in some way to play a useful role in society. Currently (and for the foreseeable future) this is weighed and measured in terms of exams. It seems reasonable therefore to hold schools to account for the results their students’ achieve. The problem with the way these results are used. Even Ofqual now seem to agree that league tables are the work of the devil and the root cause of everything that’s wrong with our exam system. And anyway, don’t Ofsted assess schools on more than just their results? Or is that naive?
2. Which brings us to the role of Ofsted. The latest noises made by Wilshaw in his speech to the RSA suggest that finally Ofsted might be willing to let teachers teach. Who’s to say a local partnership would do a better job? I certainly think that the manner in which Ofsted inspect could be changed and the idea that the lead inspector should be responsible for help schools act on recommendations is appealing. There’s lots wrong with Ofsted, but maybe the devil you know is preferable to a mushrooming of nebulous ‘local partnerships’?
3. The idea that our education system should not be a political football is great. However, the suggestion that the ball is licked out to touch for 20 years is full of potential pitfalls. Laura MCInnery’s A Letter To Future Education Ministers: Could Curriculum Review Look Like This? is better thought out and more likely to appeal: her idea of a review board would achieve the same ends by a much more palatable means. All prospective reformers should read this and remember that, “So many efforts continue to proceed in innocence, as if implementation were just a matter of bringing good ideas and clear thinking to the benighted.” I’m sure the Twitter heads don’t consider us as benighted, but the temptation to do what we think is best for everyone can be overwhelming.
4. I really don’t have a strong opinion on this, but as far as I can tell the tide is already shifting against large national chains so maybe it’s not much of a bone of contention?
5. OK. Here I wholeheartedly agree. Norm referencing is not the way forward and I have already written my opinions on this here.
6. Collaboration between schools would appear to be a positive thing. Do current accountability measures really encourage competition local rivals beyond the kind of annual hurrah which comes from seeing who’s top of the tables? And collaboration should be as wide as possible. It seems obvious that primaries and secondaries should work more closely, but the (implicit) suggestion here is that collaboration should be local and narrow. Why? Why not involve national chains? Why not involve the private sector? Why not collaborate internationally? And I’m not 100% sure what ‘systems leadership’ actually is but I’m all for things being developed explicitly rather than being left as an implicit muddle. None of the ideas in this point would appear to be at odds with government policy, but maybe that’s just my ignorance talking.
Bravo to these heads for getting the ball rolling but if I were King Arthur I’d want to focus on Point 5. The argument that norm referencing is bad would be a clear clarion call to arms that most teachers would be happy to support.