Reflections on Stephen Twigg’s speech to the RSA 17th June 2013
This was a significant speech, setting out much of Stephen Twigg’s key policy ideas. It was a drive to move the debate around education from an ideological one about structures to one about standards for all; as he said “’we shouldn’t fall into the trap of equating structural change with school improvement”, something he clearly feels Gove has promoted.
Twigg spelt out three ‘radical reforms’ he wants to make:
“Where a school freedom promotes higher standards, we will extend those freedoms to all schools”
He showed how he would level the playing field for all schools, academies, free schools and maintained schools; equalizing opportunities for innovation, curriculum freedom and spending control, “In a One Nation system, freedoms would be granted to all schools and innovation would spread across the system.”
“No one cares more about a school than the community it serves.”
He intends to deliver “a radical devolution of power from Whitehall” and increased local accountability for all schools, academies included. David Blunkett has been “asked to lead a review into the local oversight of schools. He will look at the role of the local authority…I am clear that local authorities should be able to issue early warning notices to academies and Free Schools, in the same way as they can for maintained schools”. In this he has rightly identified a key weakness in Gove’s Academisation programme – what do you do when they fail? “Contrary to the Government’s rhetoric, Free Schools and academies are not a panacea for school improvement”, “We need stronger local oversight for all schools so that struggling schools are spotted much sooner, local support is on hand to drive up standards, and schools have a clear relationship with their community.”
“We will ensure that every school plays its part to raise standards across their area and meet the needs of their community.”
There was a strong emphasis on the development of mechanisms to ensure schools collaborated with each other, “a lack of collaboration poses a risk for schools standards”. Quoting Andreas Schleicher and referencing evidence from PISA Stephen set out why he feels formalised collaboration is essential to school improvement. “The evidence on school improvement, from home and abroad, demonstrates that partnerships and federations between schools are key to raising teaching standards, leadership skills, and sharing best practice”. “That is why under Labour, we would make it a requirement for all schools to partner with weaker schools as a condition for attaining an Outstanding rating by Ofsted, taking forward the recommendation of the Academies Commission. Academies have an important part to play here…I would introduce greater emphasis with regard to collaboration in academy funding agreements. Not new duties, but giving teeth to existing responsibilities. Indeed, I also want to make sure that new academy funding agreements, and the renewal of existing ones, are subject to these schools demonstrating a real commitment to playing their part in collaborating with other schools in their community.
There was also a clear message valuing the role of teachers and school leaders in realising his vision for school improvement, Gove “has lost sight of the most important thing for driving standards forward: the people in our schools and classrooms across the country. The professionals. They are the true enablers of promise.” In questions afterwards he restated his commitment to evidence based policy through the setting up of an ‘Office for Education Improvement’ and to enhancing the status of the profession through a proposed ‘Royal College of Teaching’.
On Free Schools “Labour will not continue with Michael Gove’s Free Schools policy. Existing free schools and those in the pipeline will continue. But in future we need a better framework for creating new schools.” He will however allow for parent promoted schools to open where they are needed most. But in a distinct diversion from Gove’s Free Schools policy “Labour’s vision for creating new schools is one where parents and local communities will have a greater say.” The nature of a new school would not be pre-determined, “there will be no bias for or against a school type- so new academies, new maintained schools, new trust schools- all options.”
He book-ended the speech with comment and policy plans to ensure schools took responsibility for improving social mobility, “admissions of working class children into Russell Group universities remain shamefully low. Unacceptably low.”
“Every school must play its part in ensuring fair admissions. The comprehensive ideal, within a mixed economy of schools. That’s the challenge”. This would be tackled partly through a strengthening of the admissions code, and extending the office of the school adjudicator’s jurisdiction to cover academies and free schools.
So what wasn’t in the speech:
• The curriculum – giving maintained schools the same curriculum freedoms afforded to academies would seem to signal the death of the National Curriculum.. or is it? In questions after the speech Stephen said that Kevin Brennan was looking at questions around the curriculum and we should “watch this space”.
• Teachers pay and conditions – apart from the return to all teachers needing to have a recognised teaching qualification this wasn’t mentioned. Again in questions afterwards he did say “I think a combination of nationally negotiated pay with in-school flexibility is the way forward”. Many will read this suspiciously, but my guess is he wants to allow Headteachers to use pay flexibility to recruit and keep their best teachers. Pupil premium, which he is clearly a fan of, combined with this flexibility could be a powerful tool for Headteachers.
• And pensions? – Nothing. I think the message is pretty clear. Don’t expect a new Labour government to reverse any of the changes made to teacher pensions by this government.
There was a lot covered in a tight speech, packed full of policy that in my view signalled a significant shift from Gove’s ideologically driven attempted revolution. It reads like a Labour agenda for school improvement with a distinct focus on improving opportunities for social mobility through education. But I would urge you to read it for yourself and make your own mind up.
You can do so here.
John Taylor (@John_H_Taylor) is a London secondary school teacher and Co-Editor of Labour Teachers