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It's time to give our education system a year off from reform

A politics-free period in schools could improve outcomes faster than any policy change.

Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Since the 1988 Education Reform Act, English schools have experienced 25 years of frenetic change. It is difficult to assess what impact, if any, these changes have had on outcomes – Robert Coe’s recent analysis points to minimal change, as do more recent PISA comparisons of England over time (these are far more revealing than the cross-country comparisons). Even if outcomes have improved, and those of us who have been in and out of schools during that time have generally perceived positive changes, it is impossible to know which interventions may have caused these improvements, beyond the addition of money. Although again impossible to prove, I would argue that the pace and regularity of these changes have had the most negative impact on schools in the most challenging circumstances, and on low-income pupils. Nothing might close the gap more effectively than a period of long term education stability.

The coalition government has turned the frenetic into frenzy, although this may ultimately amount to more felt noise than genuine change. What may appear radical and liberating in terms of inputs (for instance, the conversion of thousands of schools to academies), actually seems far more conservative and prescriptive when these translate to outcomes and practices. Although curricula are slowly changing in preparation for September 2014, and reacting more rapidly to the market signals from changes to accountability, in general, most schools, regardless of status, seem remarkably unchanged from three years ago.

Before Christmas, the teacher blogger Andrew Old courageously opened a conversation about teacher stress, anxiety and depression. The responses from teachers should cause all of us who ask more of schools to pause. Whilst many might feel empathy rather than sympathy – it’s not as if teachers have a monopoly on increased levels of depression – if you visit all but the most confident schools now, it does feel like there is a rising watermark of stress, caused partly by the noise of policy change, but also by an Ofsted regime which still needs to avoid self-edification and understand and demonstrate its value. As headteacher Geoff Barton articulates brilliantly in his New Year blog, in 2013 he found it more difficult than any previous year to concentrate on the improvement of teaching in his school

Although Geoff and others have been optimistic about the opportunity to bed down changes during 2014 and focus more on teaching and learning, this misses the looming panic-policy-fest of the 2015 general election, and the already-emerging development of party manifestos. Add to this the publication of various inquiries, including the ASCL’s "Great Debate" and the Compass Education Inquiry, and it looks inevitable that policy ideas and changes will continue to pour into schools.

Our short Investigation into SMSC in schools across the UK is discovering how the issues which used to define the purpose of schools have moved to the periphery, overwhelmed by attainment-related accountability pressures to a by-line in the national curriculum and in Ofsted’s thinking. It has been increasingly difficult for schools to think about anything other than short term gains in short term attainment outcomes. The deeper thinking about purpose, ethos, and the development of those values and skills which are anything but soft is not impossible, but has been rendered far more difficult by the constantly changing terrain of policy priorities.

What could be done? Here’s a modest proposal.  2015-16 (the academic year after the next general election) should be designated as a "year of reflection" when:

·        No schools-related policies are announced by DfE or any other national or local agency;

·        No schools are forced or permitted to become academies

·        No Ofsted inspections take place apart from re-inspections of those schools which have been judged inadequate, and inspections of new free schools and academies

·        No organisations (and yes, that means the RSA too) should publish any new policy proposals for schools. The phrases ‘DfE should’ or ‘schools should’ would disappear for a year.

Anybody who thinks that such a gap year would really damage standards needs to show me the evidence. Schools will, of course, carry on teaching, improving teaching, and responding to changes that already require implementation, temporarily free from the fear of the Wednesday afternoon Ofsted phone call. Pupils will carry on learning and taking exams. Local authorities, academy sponsors and others will continue to drive improvements in their own ways, without the distractions from the department, or, for academy chains, the pressure to grow.

Reflection is a tough, active process. During the year, school communities should be encouraged to exploit a period of relative stability to ask questions about their deeper purposes. Thinking carefully and expansively about purpose, as well as properly using evidence to understand the effectiveness of existing practices and cultures, is genuinely demanding work that requires proper time and space to accomplish. Governing bodies should have a central role, making sure that all schools look outwards as well as inwards and upwards. When, in Summer 2016, people ask schools what they "did in their gap year", all schools should be expected to have an answer.

This idea makes political sense. The current government also deserves a year of reflection, both holding its nerve on and understanding the impact of five years of education reforms. If elected, the opposition could move into listening mode, operating a precautionary principle to launch no changes until it fully understands the system it is trying to improve. Instead of schools, government departments could focus on more neglected areas of policy, in particular early years, further education and youth services.  Even Ofsted could take a break from the treadmill of inspections, survey and changing frameworks to consider how it uses its considerable resource and clout to add the most value. Although I am mainly thinking of England, the idea might have traction across the UK.  And if, in the Summer of 2016, one year has not felt like long enough, there is always the possibility of an extension. I have always thought that arguments for the "depoliticisation" of education are flawed, but a couple of politics-free years in schools could improve outcomes faster than any policy change.