This is the full text of the Shadow Secretary of State for Education’s speech to the Progress think-tank on Tuesday 21 February 2012.
Thank you for that introduction, and thank you to Progress for organising this event.
It was an honour to be appointed to this job by Ed Miliband. I have been in post for a bit more than a school term now. In that time, I have made a conscious effort to meet with parents, pupils, teachers and many others in the education world. It has been good to see some old friends from when I was a minister, and to meet a number of dynamic young teachers who are coming through the ranks, and changing the system for the better.
Teachers like Oli de Botton, who came to teaching through the Teach First programme. Giving Teach First the go-ahead was one of my first decisions in Government almost exactly ten years ago. And I feel confident that if people like he and Peter Hyman are setting up a free school, that they have the vision and drive to make it a success.
And teachers’ leaders like Mary Bousted who along with colleagues like Chris Keates and Christine Blower, challenges the idea of brotherly dominance in the union movement. She is a consistent advocate of an evidence based approach to education policy.
I want to talk today about what Labour’s approach to education reform will be.
I believe education needs to have a sense of mission. Rooted in Labour’s values of social justice and equality.
Education is the key to unlocking a nation’s productivity, and a person’s well being. It is the critical ingredient to our future success in such a competitive international system.
However, we are in danger of falling behind. Whilst England continues to do well in some international studies, we have slipped in PISA. We have a crisis of primary school places. And we have countries like China, South Korea and Japan no longer snapping at our heels, but leapfrogging ahead, with innovative and creative approaches to the curriculum and teaching methods.
The Government’s response to this is to hark back to basics. To promote the idea that there is a body of core knowledge which every child should know. While I agree pupils need a foundation in basic facts, can we really reduce knowledge in this way? When we are unable to predict what will happen in the economy next week, can we really predict what the next generation will need to know when they go to work?
Succeeding in the world of work is less about the ability to regurgitate information, but far more about the ability to think critically and to apply this skill to new situations.
We need to prepare children not for a job for life, but for the portfolio career they will have – able to adapt to the changing employment landscape, in ways we can barely begin to imagine.
Labour’s priorities for education are different from the Tory led Government. Yes, we will reform. Yes we will take on vested interests. Yes we will drive up rigour and standards.
But we will do so in a way that helps all pupils and schools to improve, not just a select few.
The first of our priorities will be to do more with less. To deliver fairness in tough times.
I have spoken already about the need to reform capital spending. The Government’s approach put the cart before the horse. They announced a cut in spending on school buildings of nearly 60% – double the Whitehall average. They then conducted an independent review by Sebastian James, which found you could save around 30% through reducing bureaucracy and red tape. So why not use this evidence? Cut capital spending by 30% – in line with other departments, so you can end waste without leaving children to be taught in portakabins and classrooms with leaky roofs.
Second, we need to reduce the amount spent on consultants. The NUT discovered that in the year since the election the DfE spent nearly £22 million on five consultancies. David Cameron promised a huge purge on consultants and management fees before the last election, but has cut back not on consultants, but on front line services like children’s centres.
Third, reforming the length of the school day and the length of the school term could mean we get far more return on what we invest in schools. A longer school day could better prepare children for the world of work, as they do in countries like Germany. It would give children who are at risk of joining gangs, or who have an unstable home life or poor housing a chance to learn in a suitable environment. And it would make better use of school buildings – many of which were rebuilt by Labour – which would otherwise languish empty. When we need to save money, it may make far more sense to have homework clubs, youth centres or sports clubs based in schools rather than separate buildings with additional maintenance and running costs.
Driving Educational Improvement
We desperately need education reform, and Labour should never shy away from it.
As McKinsey have noted, “most OECD countries doubled and even tripled their spending on education in real terms between 1970 and 1994. Unfortunately, despite this increase in expenditure, student outcomes in a large number of systems either stagnated or regressed.”
By contrast, there was a sustained period of improvement in educational outcomes in the UK from 1997 to 2010, although our system remains good rather than excellent.
So if there was significant improvement during the last Government, and studies show children are getting more intelligent, why do employers still complain about the quality of school leavers?
The reason is simple: while education changed, the world of work has been transformed.
As Professor Dylan William from the Institute of Education has noted “the number of jobs not requiring qualifications in the UK economy has fallen by a third in just seven years — between 2002 and 2008, the UK lost 400 no-qualification jobs every single day.”
Through offshoring and the rise of automation and technology, the modern workplace has been transformed in recent decades.
This feels like, according to William, “walking up a down escalator. If we cannot increase the rate at which our schools are improving, then, quite simply, we will go backwards.”
This comes to the difference between conservative and progressive approaches to education. While conservatives are happy for schools to simply identify talent – for the best to rise to the top; progressives want our schools to be talent factories – creating and incubating the skills and ability of our children.
The international evidence suggests two critical elements driving educational improvement.
The first and most important thing is to raise the quality of teaching.
Most of the evidence shows that the type of school you attend matters far less than the classroom you’re in. The thing that really makes the difference is the teacher.
As Dylan William has found, “in the classrooms of the best teachers, students learn at twice the rate they do in the classrooms of average teachers—they learn in six months what students taught by the average teachers take a year to learn…Moreover, in the classrooms of the most effective teachers, students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn just as much as those from advantaged backgrounds.”
So how do we raise the quality of teaching?
One way is to ensure that the smartest people in our society are teachers, as is the case in top performers like Finland, Japan and Singapore. Raise the quality by raising the status. But while we made great efforts in government through schemes such as Teach First, there is still a way to go.
We need people who are drawn to the profession not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
At the same time, we need to be tough on underperforming teachers. That means giving heads adequate powers to retrain or remove inadequate teachers, and governors adequate powers to retrain or replace inadequate head teachers.
But even more important than both these principles is to improve the quality of existing teachers. We have the best generation of teachers ever, but there is still a need to challenge the profession to go further.
The most effective judge of performance is other teachers, not politicians. I want to see greater use of peer inspection, of school based learning, where teachers report to their colleagues about what they do year on year to improve practice and raise attainment. This would enable them to share feedback with those who know the sector best and discuss challenges – and I do appreciate teaching can be a challenging and stressful job. The evidence shows that schools which take this approach show improvements according to classroom observations, but even more critically – results in exams.
There are some interesting approaches taken to this in Japan. They have a very sharp focus on lesson planning – with each minute of each class accounted for. The approach to lesson planning is also deeply collaborative, with joint planning between teachers across schools allowing for reflection and refinement. They also have public demonstrations of successful lessons to spread best practice.
So if the first challenge is to improve teaching, the second is to develop quality leadership.
We need effective leadership from head teachers. You know a good head when you meet one – and I have met many. Jayne Kennedy at Barlow Hall Primary in Manchester, Liam Nolan at Perry Beeches Secondary in Birmingham, Dave Brunton at City Academy Norwich to name just three.
A lot has been made of the progress at Mossbourne Academy, and we are right to celebrate their success. But how many people realise that Michael Wilshaw also achieved great success back in the 1980s when he took over St Bonaventure’s RC Secondary in Newham, a school on the brink of special measures. By 2000, 80 per cent of pupils received five A*-C grades. This all happened without academy status, without a private sponsor and without a new Richard Rogers building.
Yes most academies have been incredibly successful. But often because they were the route to bringing in new leadership and new teachers to a school.
Often the challenge for effective leaders is not persuading people to do the right thing, but stopping them doing unproductive things. Education suffers from the thousand flowers syndrome – a surfeit of political initiatives that can stifle the things we know work.
When time and resources are limited, the skill of effective leaders is to focus on the small number of things that raise outcomes for pupils. The current teaching standards are too static – we need to ensure a culture of continuous improvement by teachers, where they are challenged to explain every year how they have improved their classroom practice.
Dogma in Education
Through the meetings I have had, and with time for some reflection, I have come back to one central thought about the challenge in education today. And it reflects the title of this event – the dominance of dogma in our system, over solid research and an evidence based approach.
Evidence is something that is shockingly undervalued when it comes to education reform. It is even more important in a time of financial austerity.
Imagine, for a moment, if the NHS ignored research on how to help patients survive, and instead followed the personal prejudices of some doctors or politicians? We could still be using leeches and treating the sick for black bile.
And yet too many of our educational cures fail to address the real needs of pupils. Too many are driven by a need for politically sympathetic headlines.
So a legitimate desire to tackle ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses ends up with the Government dogmatically downgrading important vocational subjects like engineering.
I have criticised the dogma that comes from the current Government.
- That says the only to way to solve school failure is through academisation.
- That says the only subjects that are valued in society are those in the Ebacc.
- That says learning core knowledge is more important than transferable skills.
But just as there is a dogma coming from Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, so there is a dogma coming from some on the left.
- That seeks to protect the vested interests of the producers, over the real interests of pupils and parents.
- That refuses to engage with business and industry even if it can help raise standards and promote achievement in some of our most deprived communities.
- That opposes the idea of parents getting more involved in the running of schools.
The dogma on both sides doesn’t reflect the views of parents. There are lots of Labour voters who believe in rigorous examinations and proper discipline, just as there are lots of Conservative voters who believe in vocational subjects and helping the poorest pupils.
At the heart of this dogma is a rose tinted view of the past.
So part of the left harks back to a golden age of comprehensive education in the 1960s and 1970s.
And the right harks back to a golden age of grammar schools in the 1950s.
Fiona Millar has looked in detail at lack of social mobility in the 11 plus system. The 1959 Crowther report found that:
“boys from homes of semi-skilled or unskilled workers ‘were much under-represented in the composition of selective schools…Likewise they are over-represented in membership of non-selective schools. This is no different today – the proportion of children eligible for free school meals in the remaining grammar schools is around 2% compared to a national average of 18% in all other schools.”
Evidence Based Reform
So instead of looking back to a halcyon age that never existed, we need to understand how we reform the whole of our system, rather than focussing on limited clusters of interventions.
Too often education reform has been based on the fashions of the day rather than on solid data.
To address this challenge, I am announcing today that a Labour Government would create an ‘Office for Educational Improvement’, independent of ministers, along the lines of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility.
The Office would focus on four major areas: promoting high standards; spreading best practice; acting as a clearing house for research; and aiming to improve England’s position compared to other countries.
The Office would act as the authority on evidence in education policy, including on the relationship between education and social mobility.
This idea has come through Labour’s policy review process. Several people have suggested an independent body to advise on education policy – some have suggested an education equivalent of the Chief Medical Officer whilst others have proposed a Standing Commission on Education.
I have asked John Dunford formerly leader of ASCL, the secondary heads’ association, to examine the idea of an Office for Educational Improvement and report back to me on the remit of the organisation, composition and working method. I would welcome the contributions of teachers, parents and other professionals to this review.
I do not see this as being just another quango. Rather I want to involve people who have experience of the front line. A head teacher who has experience of getting poorer kids into university, for example.
Labour will take political dogma out of the education system and put evidence at its heart.
So, ask me my three priorities in education, and I would say “evidence, evidence, evidence.”
A Whole System Approach
I want to praise the work of Estelle Morris and Jonathan Sharples in establishing the Coalition for Evidence Based Education. One of the central projects is the Education Media Centre. Modelled along the Science Media Centre, it will go some way to bridging the gap between academic research and journalism. If the centre can provide the media with a solid set of data on what works, and what doesn’t in education, they will have achieved a lot.
The US Congress proposed an act to create a National Centre for Knowledge Use within the Education Department’s research agency, to help educators translate research into usable classroom knowledge. At the Washington Institute of Public Policy has developed ‘Which?’ style reports for State policy makers on programmes designed to improve outcomes for children.
I would welcome such innovation in the UK, through the better use of data, and increasing transparency.
Finally, we need to ensure our reform efforts transform the whole system.
Whilst a number of Free Schools are being set up by progressive education leaders, I worry that Michael Gove is putting his eggs in one basket.
Many of the Government’s Free Schools will be secondary when many parts of the country face a serious shortage of primary places. In tough times, we have to ensure fairness – that means a fair funding system which reflects the real need for new schools on the ground, not pet projects.
Too often, educational reform has focussed on a cluster of interventions which don’t spread best practice across the system.
We should never be afraid of innovation, but we must ensure that a rising tide raises all boats.
To spread best practice across the system, we need an effective middle tier. The McKinsey report I mentioned earlier found that for school systems to improve from good to great, they increasingly rely on “a ‘mediating layer’ that acts between the centre and the schools. This mediating layer sustains improvement by providing three things of importance to the system: targeted hands-on support to schools, a buffer between the school and the centre, and a channel to share and integrate improvements across schools.”
In a system that is increasingly atomised, with schools leaving the local authority family, and accountable only to the secretary of state there is a clear democratic deficit.
To address this accountability gap, I am interested in how we can promote models such as local schools’ commissioners, to ensure parents and local communities have a role in local education –commissioning places, raising standards, and ensuring fair access.
In summary, we need to focus far more on quality if we are to continue the legacy of the education reforms Labour began in government.
Quality teaching, quality leadership and quality research will be what drive lasting and sustainable improvement in our schools system.
Stephen Twigg MP
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