Friday, 13 March 2015

Fixing our schools: 'it's not the policy, it's the people'

Heath Monk in The Telegraph

There is an election coming and education is bound to be a key issue because there are still too many schools where students aren’t doing well enough. We’ll have to spend the next few months listening to prospective Education Secretaries explain how they will fix this. But the truth is we don’t need more policy: we need a revolution. And it has already started, quietly.
This ‘Quiet Revolution’ is how school improvement really works. It’s not about top-down decisions made in Westminster; it’s about exceptional school leaders and great teachers transforming their schools through hard work and expertise.
Over the past decades successive governments have used policy to reconfigure curricula, tighten accountability and shake up governance. I’ve worked in the Department for Education alongside the people who made some of these changes and, without a doubt, they are genuinely motivated by the desire to make a positive change.
But while policies can set expectations and contexts, they are not magic wands. They frequently fail to translate to the front line and some of them aren’t even good ideas, creating more noise than signal.
No political party is immune to this sort of thinking. Recent examples include Tristram Hunt’s pedagogic oath to ensure teacher’s moral purpose (as if medical doctors never go bad), Cameron’s ‘war on mediocre schools’ (haven't they always been with us?) and the confusion caused by universal free school meals in primary
Our political culture now relies on bold promises and vague delivery, and that is not what students from disadvantaged backgrounds need. They are the ones who are most harmed by bad schools and they need a quiet revolution most of all.
The mission of giving these young people a great education will not be achieved just through change at the top. My reading of history is that even loud revolutions leave much unchanged. If the deep structures aren’t modified, you’re just re-arranging the chairs.
It’s school leadership that changes things on the ground. A great headteacher can transform an entire school because they have the skills and vision to understand what their teachers and students need to succeed.
I hope I can take the next Education Secretary around one the schools I’ve visited recently and show them how real school improvement happens. It’s the head who shakes hands with every pupil at the gate; who consistently enforces the rule that every student must be ready to learn by bringing a pencil, pen and ruler to their lessons; or who instils a ‘no hands up’ class room culture so it’s not the same keen students answering questions.

This might sound like window-dressing but there’s lots of data that shows that it is not. These everyday actions lead to shared values, language and culture throughout a school – and that can change students’ lives.
The organisation I work for is part of this Quiet Revolution, though we have borrowed the phrase. We train people who want to become headteachers because they are driven by the moral purpose to give every child the opportunity to succeed.
We’ve devoted part of our website to celebrating and sharing some of the most effective things they’ve seen in schools. This work isn’t revolutionary because of fad or fashion but because they’ve done it really (really) well.
Since Future Leader Jane Keeley became headteacher at Haggerston School in Hackney the school has regained its standing in the community, engaging students and families and improving results. Future Leader Luke Sparkes helped set up Dixons Trinity Academy in one of the most deprived areas of Bradford and has instilled a culture where children love school and are excelling academically.
The work of school improvement isn’t complicated but it is hard. It requires dedication to students and a commitment to continual development. It doesn’t happen systematically just because of edicts from Westminster but because of individuals who know that there isn’t any time to waste.
Every child who leaves school without five good GCSEs including English and maths will face reduced choices and opportunities, damaging lives and communities.
I like the tradition in Ancient Rome, where conquering generals would return in triumph and ride through the city with someone whispering in their ear, ‘Remember: you are mortal.’ Post-election, I’d love to stand behind whoever is at the dispatch box and whisper: ‘It’s not the policy, it’s the people.’
The Quiet Revolution is for school leaders and teachers who believe that every child can achieve, who are always searching for better ways to support their students – and who will not stop, whatever the current system.

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