Ed Balls seems to have had a bad week or so. Apparently he is one of the ‘teenagers’ responsible for that landslide defeat in the non-election. However, when we finally get beyond the Westminster froth, it is his approach towards real teenagers which will define his success and that of the government. And the initial signs are encouraging.
The Blair years in education were characterised by steady improvements in outcomes and seismic improvements in resources. My school, a challenging one in North-East London, is now awash with interactive whiteboards, learning support assistants and teachers with cutting edge training. But what we have lacked is an overarching narrative to explain and then tackle the more intractable pockets of underachievement and disengagement. In the first years of New Labour it was all about test scores and comparable performance. All summative assessment and no formative look at why, for example, over half of all students were still not reaching a good standard of literacy and numeracy at 16.
Balls and his team have sought a different emphasis, firstly by making the DCSF a department that looks at the ‘whole child’ and secondly by asserting that schools work best when they collaborate rather than compete. Everyone who works with tough children knows that success only comes when schools work closely with outside agencies and each other. So while we have got this part of the approach right we must now establish where reform is going. How are we actually going to engage those turned off by learning on a day-to-day basis, those who have been impervious to 10 years of Labour spending?
Ministers and Headteachers must start by reasserting the primacy of classroom learning. This means we should accept that what matters most is not whether a school is a trust, an academy or a LEA institution but whether a school is run primarily to support the educational engagement of every student. Regardless of structures, all institutions should encourage out-of-hours learning, school trips, weekend clubs, cross-curricular and cross-year group learning; we need schools that allow space and time for curriculum flexibility. We are already seeing innovation across the country with teachers seeking to engage the disengaged through student involvement in lesson design and delivery, multimedia interactive learning and extensive project working. The DCSF (and Ofsted) must acknowledge further the importance of these approaches that get all students switched on and ready to learn. In short the next stage of education reform should not be about inventive school structures, but innovation within the structures of schools.
For politicians this means letting go a bit, accepting that innovation and flexibility cannot be fostered with top down dictats about how to teach. The proper role of ministers is to set a strategic direction, establish what outcomes and skills are important and share best practice. They should then leave the classroom teacher to support students into achieving the desired outcomes – this after all is the essential skill of the practitioner. From a teacher’s perspective it also means accepting the increased scrutiny and accountability that such freedom should bring.
What I am suggesting is not easy, nor, as Balls acknowledges with his championing of the every child matters agenda, will it eradicate all the problems children face. But it does build on what teachers know and what politicians have the power to affect. Indeed, Blair was always good at pushing the boundaries of what was possible in the political arena. Now Brown and his team need to encourage teachers to push boundaries in the educational arena – then, and only then, we will see the investment get translated into world-class achievement.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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