In May, we engaged practitioners across Challenge Partners in an exploration of what it will take, in the next five to ten years, to lead the system to excellence and equity. Emerging ideas were developed and added to at our Trust Leaders’ Conference in June, and presented to Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan MP, who joined us on the day.
We offer the resulting four ‘Big Ideas’ here as a provocation for professionals, policymakers and politicians, all of whom have an important role to play in raising the bar on educational excellence and equity.
Healthily, our discussions revealed a range of views, and we don’t attempt to do justice to the full spectrum here, nor to get into the devil of detail. The purpose of sharing the ideas as simplified, bold propositions is to provoke reactions, and - most importantly - actions to drive thinking and practice forward.
- A system with children at its heart
For decades there has been a tension between schools’ core role in educating children and the wide range of other responsibilities they are asked to take on, whether preventing extremism, promoting British values or picking up the pieces of broken CAMHS, early help and health services. Covid saw the lines blurred further, with schools assuming responsibility for feeding hungry families, as testing and vaccination centres.
A strong theme in our discussions was that - in the interest of the young people they serve - leaders want schools and trusts working together across a locality to become genuine community hubs. This means ending the fight to access external community and social services by integrating them within/across schools and trusts. It could also mean harnessing the capacity of community organisations and volunteers. A shared goal, common language and expectations will be crucial to holistically meeting the needs of each child.
This isn’t about intensifying the expectation of teachers to be solvers of all society’s and students’ ills, but having professionals with the right expertise on hand, addressing the needs of children where they are - in schools. As one trust leader put it, “it’s about the total collective expertise and how it comes together to support each child”. Teachers should be free to teach because qualified professionals are attending to the other aspects of child development, wellbeing and flourishing.
Getting this right in the early years (even pre-birth) is particularly important, to avoid the situation where schools are forever playing catch-up. Identifying and addressing early the issues that hold pupils back - like speech, language and communication difficulties - could prevent them from escalating through their school career.
Pupils with SEND were highlighted as worthy of particular focus. It is clear that the current situation of insufficient specialist provision and mainstream schools feeling helpless to meet increasingly complex needs cannot continue. Equally clear is that there isn’t the funding available to bolster current arrangements in any significant way. Instead, we need a new paradigm for thinking about SEND and inclusion in education. Recognising what children can do (not what they can’t) and building the system around them would seem a good place to start.
Ultimately this is about a system that prepares each student holistically for flourishing futures.
- A system which aligns better with the world beyond
We are living in a world where even AI experts cannot keep pace with the change in the digital landscape nor agree on the implications for the labour market - or the future of the world itself. An ostrich strategy is unsustainable; it’s not going away.
The debate to be had here isn’t about knowledge versus skills. It is about how we make the boundaries between schools and the world they operate in more porous, giving teachers and pupils the space, scope and support to engage with what’s going on around them and bring it judiciously into the classroom to enhance learning for its own sake and preparation for life beyond.
It is also about moving beyond system architecture designed to differentiate between children to one which includes every child in equally enriching experiences. The aim should be to meet each child’s needs alongside those of a changing world and workforce, and better recognise their achievements through reform of the assessment regime. It is about giving every young person the experiences and recognition to grant them meaningful life choices.
During lockdown, it was striking how the time and impetus to engage with digital heralded leaps forward in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. While some schools and trusts have continued this journey, many have snapped back to more traditional methods, reinstating the boundaries between what goes on in classrooms and life outside. Students still write most exams on paper in rows in exam halls, which in no way reflects how the vast majority will be expected to operate in wider society or the world of work.
What schools and trusts need is the time, training and IT infrastructure to engage with the possibilities of digital and AI. This would allow them to explore how embracing it can strengthen subject knowledge and reduce workload, as well as considering what new skills we need to equip young people with to navigate its darker side and harness its potential to do good.
Digital and AI is only one example of change in the world around us that we might want to embrace more in our schools. Another point that came up in our discussion was the perennial issue of the devaluing of vocational subjects. The general point is about increasing the porousness of the boundaries between our schools and the world outside.
- A new social contract between the profession, politicians and the public
Some trust leaders reflected on how - when pointed at a clear goal - the system can align to effect impressive and rapid shifts at scale. Recent examples include the huge and frequent pivots during covid, and the Ofsted-prompted refocusing on the curriculum. Leaders wondered at the potential to galvanise the profession behind a new clear national priority, shaped through dialogue between politicians and the profession.
There are frequent calls to take politics out of education, but equally frequent complaints when the direction isn’t clear. Parsing these points means accepting the democratic legitimacy of political interest in education, while enhancing the role the profession plays in setting the direction of policy in partnership with government. Put simply, this is about deciding together what needs to change, and agreeing on the roles the sector and government will play to make that shared aspiration a reality. It’s about leadership from government, coupled with the autonomy of the profession to drive change.
There are some important preconditions for this - and the one that came up most frequently was around raising the profile of the teaching profession. This is both about respect from politicians and the public, and those in the sector doing more to talk it up. The success of a new social contract also depends on the profession offering reciprocal respect in their interactions with and about politicians and policymakers.
- Unlock leaders and invest in an expert and sustainable profession
Recruitment and retention challenges at all levels of the profession are well documented. The plea emerging from the group exploring these themes at our conference was that we flip the narrative, reconnecting with our collective moral purpose, and empowering and investing in the profession and leaders to build their strength and resilience, and a sustainable and expert profession that people want to join. Expertise should come from the time and encouragement to engage with evidence and continuing professional development, and school and trust leaders should be acknowledged as key levers in driving this professional flourishing.
Unlocking leaders from the many unproductive constraints and pressures they face is crucial in enabling them to better play their role in elevating the teachers and support staff who have the most direct impact on pupils’ life chances.
To play this role well, school and trust leaders need support and action from politicians and policymakers to:
- With the public, show gratitude and positivity towards the profession, backed with reasonable pay and conditions, and ongoing investment in their professional development. This requires funding for schools to recreate the time and space for teachers to engage with research, collaborate and engage in professional development, and leaders to nurture and develop them
- Review accountability measures to ensure they are proportionate and intelligent
- With leaders and the profession, explore further how to reduce unnecessary workload and improve work flexibility
- Engage and listen to leaders offering a range of perspectives from beyond the inner sanctum, opening the door to systematic, constructive, mutually-respectful partnership and dialogue
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