Keven Bartle is the Headteacher of Canons High School in Edgware, NW London, which is a Teaching School as part of the Canons Park Alliance. He is a lifelong Labour supporter from one of the few remaining bastions of Labour support, the North East. He tweets as @kevbartle, blogs here and does so in very much a personal capacity.
And so it begins again. Another school year – my 22nd, for the record – and another massive structural change plan for education. According to the reports on Radio 4 this morning (well, it is my 22nd year in teaching and so you can forgive me for living the middle-age, middle-class dream) this is the most radical reform of schooling for half a century. I confess to giving a hollow laugh as I negotiated the journey to work. Whether it was the emphasis on ‘reform’ or the emphasis on ‘radical’ that caused my sarcastic snicker I’m not quite sure.
Once upon a time radical reform was a generational concept. In the post-war era it was the tripartite system of the 40s, the comprehensivisation of the 60s, the marketisation of the 80s and then the academisation of the 00s. But then something happened to politicians, starting under the Blair era and continuing ever since: continuity within governments was sacrificed on the altar of the seen-to-be-doing-something-radical intra-governmental-change mindset.
It’s a mindset that largely plays out in structural reform, but one that is also mirrored in reforms to external assessment and accountability mechanisms too. And so we find ourselves in the midst of changes for new and untried curricula feeding into new and untried examinations to inform new and untried RAISEonline data packages to provide ammunition for new and untried inspection mechanisms that are evaluated by new and untried commissioners within education to sweep schools into new and untried multi-academy trusts that will use new and untried methodologies to raise the attainment levels of the children who are meant to be at the heart of the whole new and untried system. Oh, and to top it all off, all of this needs to be done within the finances of a not even yet new and untried funding system (should the government ever get around to completing their consultation on the matter).
And all the while, a deeply resilient profession plays on as best it can like the band on board the Titanic. The lifeboats fill as the lifeblood drains out. At one end of the scale Headteachers are being retired and fired in greater numbers than they are being hired. At the other targets for new entrants to the profession are undershot whilst those who are recruited are attritioned out in massive numbers. And the squeezed middle, be they curriculum and pastoral leaders or the old classroom hands who unsexily keep the whole show on the road, find themselves with increasing class sizes and increasing contact time (but barely increasing pay packets for almost a decade now) as the never-ending race-to-the-bottom austerity agenda continues to bite individuals and institutions in equal measure.
So, forgive me for the negativity about the ‘radical reform’ of re-grammarisation and my hollow laugh at the end of what is supposed to be the honeymoon period of the school year. And forgive me for wondering, yet again, where Labour is in this debate, other than in vague and generalised opposition to the plans put forward by others.
In apology, let me finish with some positivity (all of this is, after all, set against the backdrop of the loveliest late summer sunshine I can remember in my 22nd September as a teacher) and a suggestion for the shadow education secretary. Call this government out on its botched reforms of the middle tier, on its botched approach to teacher recruitment and on its botched approaches to accountability that have the whole profession running in fear into the arms of questionable ethical practices with both teachers and students.
And when the media asks what you would do instead of free schools, grammar schools, mass academisation and Regional Schools Commissioners, tell them that you would instigate a Royal Commission to bring together the best and the brightest of the profession, of academics and of whoever else has a stake in the long-term inter-generational stability of our vital education system. Tell them that this commission would be empowered to look under every stone to seek out the best and the worst of what we already do. Tell them that it would cut across party lines but that all parties would commit to carrying out its recommendations and to setting a twenty year moratorium on future change. Tell them that education is too important to remain in the field of play as little more than a political football and that you will end the game-playing that seems to have replaced real politics. Go on – I dare you, with every ounce of my 21 and a bit years of experience – tell them that.