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.

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.

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

Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder