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Burnham For Mayor

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Speech to the Festival of Education

When he launched this Festival last year, Anthony Seldon expressed the hope that it would contribute to a new national debate on education. We are all here today because, even though we may have different perspectives, we share a commitment to the importance of building that debate.

One year on, Anthony has succeeded - in part.

The good news is there is a livelier education debate today than a year ago – in staff rooms, council chambers and on social networks. The bad news is it is fast becoming a polarised debate, with entrenched positions and a diminishing sense of national consensus.

Why is this?

Today I want to answer that question directly.

It’s simple: Michael Gove has mis-sold his education reforms.

In a moment, I will explain why I believe that to be the case.

But, before you switch off at what may sound like a traditional Opposition speech, I want to go on from there and do something different.

I want to put forward some constructive ideas which, if adopted by the Secretary of State, could help build more consensus across the political spectrum and, as a result, probably enhance the durability of his reforms.

To be fair to Michael, in Opposition, he certainly caught the mood of the times.

Promises of school freedom, professional autonomy and parent empowerment resonated with people who felt Labour’s approach was overly interfering and target-driven.

But, a year on, as people get a feel for what these reforms mean in practice, there’s growing unease that the reality doesn’t match up to the rhetoric.

We seem to be heading at bewildering speed not towards but away from these good principles.

Put simply, Mr Gove is in real danger of looking like he wants to tell communities what kind of schools they must have, teachers how to teach and students what subjects they must study at GCSE.

Top-down targets, once thought to be the root of all evil, are back with a vengeance.

The emergence of a more stringent floor target felt like a road-to-Damascus conversion to Labour’s successful approach to school improvement.

Far from enhancing student choice, there are stories of students under pressure from schools to take English Baccalaureate subjects rather than follow their interests, talents and passions.

Like the floor target, the Bac was introduced with no formal consultation – a defining feature of the current Secretary of State’s style.

Far from promoting professional autonomy, Ministers repeatedly stray dangerously close to telling teachers how to do their jobs – the need to teach history in chronological order, for instance – and the powers of independent, professional bodies are being taken back by the Secretary of State.

And far from the promised localism, these reforms are in fact highly centralising in character.

One type of school is effectively being imposed on all communities: a centrally-contracted academy.

Some academy conversions are being railroaded through by school management, many of whom feel they have no choice and one arm up their back, with little space for genuine community consultation about the implications of the change.

Rather than parent-promoted schools, the Secretary of State now talks of “brands and chains” of new schools as the rules on Free Schools are tightened.

This kind of education system - with 20,000 separate schools contracted to the Secretary of State, no meaningful local authority oversight and all judged by a narrow, academic performance measure - is a huge departure from the world we have known and does not feel like what was promised.

It threatens to disturb a long-standing, cross-Party consensus in England: that power over children’s education should not be concentrated in a small number of political hands in London but spread throughout the land, vested in trusted, independent guardians at local level and national level.

That’s why I say the Government has mis-sold its reforms. They are centralising and politicise education to a degree not seen before.

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.”

Rather than dismiss these words, as they seemed to, the Government should reflect carefully on why a figure of such eminence should make them.

Anxiety about reform is running high, not just because the changes aren’t delivering what was promised but also because the Government hasn’t clearly defined the end point and what kind of education system they are building.

The Government used to talk a lot about Sweden as the model for these reforms. It does not go unnoticed that Sweden rarely gets a mention these days. That’s probably because Sweden itself has backed off its reforms, after seeing rising social segregation and falling standards in some schools.

Having held up Sweden as the model, the onus is on the Government to explain why Sweden’s problems won’t happen here - how, in an all-academy world, with local authorities sidelined and the Schools Adjudicator weakened, there will be no compromise on social justice, fair access to all and a broad school experience ensuring the educational and social development of all children.

Instead, we hear nudges and winks about an expansion of selection. Do they believe in more academic selection or not? We don’t know.

This is a problem because these are issues that touch a deep nerve. With a lack of debate, it feels like England is sleepwalking towards a more selective and socially-segregated education system.

Why does this matter?

Because a fevered and fractious political debate is destabilising for people working in education.

Politicians owe it to people to build consensus where we can.

In education, I think we need a renewed effort to do that – and I want to play my part.

So let me put forward some positive suggestions for how that could be achieved.

Problems with building consensus on reform are not unique to this Government.

When he appointed me Health Minister in 2006, Tony Blair gave me a specific job: to communicate the reform programme to NHS staff.

It was a recognition that reform wouldn’t succeed with a narrow band of true believers but needed to be understood and accepted by people at every level.

Back then, NHS reform had become the subject of rising controversy and friction with staff, driven partly by a financial deficit.

I quickly realised that doing a series of staff roadshows entitled ‘Why Foundation Trusts and PFI are great - no really!’ would not quite do the job.

So I did something different. I spent time shadowing NHS staff at every level - cleaners, GPs, junior hospital doctors and porters - trying to understand things from their side.

They all told me the same thing – while their jobs were hard, they were motivated to do them by a commitment to the NHS and its values. And, while they accepted the need for change, they felt the reform journey put NHS values at risk.

And so I proposed an NHS Constitution: to enshrine in law the enduring values and principles of the NHS.

The aim was not to hold back reform, but to help people embrace it by securing what they care about.

It was intended to provide a more secure framework within which debates about change in the NHS could take place and, with all-Party endorsement, help defuse the ideological and political wrangling that staff find so destabilising.

It has done all that and recently came into its own.

In recent weeks, it has been fascinating for me to watch the NHS Future Forum draw heavily on the text of the NHS Constitution as it sought to rebuild consensus after the Government’s pause.

This brings me to my first proposal.

Don’t we now need something similar for our education system – an Education or Schools Constitution?

There is real anxiety that today’s reforms will bring a randomness, a break-up of the system where schools will be free to do what they like and splinter towards more narrow social groups.

To calm fears about this, isn’t there a need for a binding statement of values that all schools should subscribe to – a renewed commitment to all-background, all-ability schools teaching a broad curriculum?

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. But isn’t the education of our children such a fundamental pillar of any society that it’s worth a try?

At the start of this century, it would help to develop a new cross-Party settlement and debate afresh the big questions: what is education for in the 21st century? What are the enduring values that should underpin the English education system?

In the maelstrom of reform, there is no time for these big questions.

Somewhere along the line, we have lost the broad view of education. Schools must not be seen as exam factories.

Couldn’t a new constitution for schools helpfully restate the broad purpose of education to help build strong, cohesive communities by developing rounded citizens who can see life from all sides?

I have spoken of my unshakeable belief in the comprehensive ideal.

But I think it needs to be debated and updated for new times. It is seen as shorthand for being anti-choice, anti-diversity, anti-excellence. I am none of those things. I want to show how they can be embraced in a comprehensive system.

And yet, almost a year into this job, I don’t know whether Michael Gove is in favour of comprehensive education. That’s a problem and another reason why we need this debate.

One of the most valuable things about a constitution for people working in education is that - like the NHS Constitution – it can begin to change the way politicians operate.

The NHS Constitution enshrines a legal commitment to listen, consult and base changes on evidence.

It is one of the reasons why we got the pause and the chance to debate the NHS reforms.

By contrast, in education, we see changes that affect what and how children learn outrageously forced on schools without warning or consultation.

Three times Michael Gove has been forced to change course under threat of legal action.

Something is seriously wrong when the only way local communities can make their voices heard is to sue the Secretary of State.

A constitution can bring a rebalancing of power – back to communities, teachers and, most importantly, parents.

More power to parents

This brings me to the second area where I think the Government can build consensus.

It concerns breadth in the curriculum and the school experience.

The worry is that, in a world with all schools having freedom to opt out of the National Curriculum and employ unqualified teachers, the school experience could become variable and narrow.

This narrowness may be enshrined by the new top-down performance measure – the English Baccalaureate.

It gives schools a clear signal to focus on this arbitrary list of subjects and on children with the ability to succeed in them.

It threatens to relegate vocational and creative subjects to a second division.

You can’t design a school system that caters for every child around the requirement of the Russell Group.

My plea to the Government is not to scrap the English Bac but to introduce more breath and flexibility into it.

Why not bring in Music, RE, Engineering and business studies?

More breadth reassures and empowers parents. But the Government could do much more on this.

In a provider-led world, parents need more guarantees that all schools will deliver a broad curriculum, that they will focus on the specific needs of their child and, more than that, find and bring out the talents they have.

More autonomy for schools is a good thing: the OECD identifies it as a common factor in the world's best education systems.

But more power for schools depends crucially on a matching increase in the power of parents.

We made a start with our pupil and parent guarantees, scrapped by this Government.

Like the right to one-to-one catch-up if a child fell behind.

The Institute of Education reported last week that when one-to-one tuition is funded by the state, it helps to narrow the attainment gap.

Nearly half a million children could miss out on this because the Government has scrapped the guarantee and ended the ring-fenced funding.

Like the opportunity to study triple science at GCSE which Labour sought to guarantee.

Triple science at GCSE is a gateway to the top universities for many young people and in the past, too many were denied even the chance to follow this route.

I am proud that the percentage of mainstream maintained schools with pupils entering triple science at GCSE rose from 37% in 2008 to 70% in 2010.

The fear with Michael Gove’s ‘anything goes’ approach to school reform is that it turns education into a lottery where the more disadvantaged children lose out.

If we are to succeed in increasing the life chances of children from poorer families, we need to give them access to the same breadth of opportunities as children from better-off families.

And it’s not just about academic opportunities.

There is a real fear that sport, culture and work experience could become the preserve of those whose families can organise opportunities.

These are the things that develop confidence and character.

Every child should have the right to qualified coaching and competitive opportunities in a range of sports.

Every child should have a right to a creative and cultural education - to learn a musical instrument, to act in a play, develop confidence in public speaking.

Sport and arts are the things that can turn on a light inside many children, helping them achieve more in their core academic studies.

Just yesterday, Ofsted published a report saying that School Sport Partnerships have contributed to improvements made in other subjects.

And if we are truly to raise aspirations for every child, we need to give every child a stake in their future.

I think the Government were wrong to scrap the statutory requirement for work-related learning at Key Stage 4.

I believe work experience should be an entitlement for every child, along with high quality face-to-face careers guidance to help them see a route into the world beyond school, and to make the right choices for their future.

To achieve a broad and rounded education for every child, where these experiences are rights not random chance, Labour is looking at setting out a clear minimum entitlement for all children.

Parents should know what they can expect, whatever school they choose for their child.

If Michael Gove isn’t attracted by the entitlement idea, at very least he needs more breadth in his English Baccalaureate.

More power to communities

The third area where I think the Secretary of State needs to make moves to build more consensus is in the local control and accountability of schools.

The fear is that, as we move towards a world of 20,000 schools all directly contracted with the Secretary of State, parents and communities are left in a vacuum.

I am firmly in favour of autonomy for schools, but international evidence tells us it must be within a strong system.

It was this lack of strong accountability that brought disastrous results in Sweden.

I believe the Government urgently need to consider building strong local accountability into the system they are creating.

Between autonomous schools and the Secretary of State, there must be a democratically-accountable intermediate tier.

There must be a better way to respond to parental concerns about schools than to suggest they open their own school.

Governors are part of the answer, and so is Ofsted. But so are Local Authorities.

The Government’s White Paper talks of Local Authorities as “champions of choice, securing a wide range of education options for parents and families, ensuring there are sufficient high-quality school places, coordinating fair admissions” and “challenging schools which fail to improve”.

I wholeheartedly back that sentiment – but can’t see how these reforms deliver it.

Instead of snatching power for himself, the Secretary of State should be looking at ways to devolve power to local areas, to make our school system genuinely responsive to the communities it serves.

There should be a role for local authorities – but it needs to be rethought in a more autonomous world.

Perhaps it’s a simple as giving back to local authorities some of the powers that Secretary of State gives to himself in the Education Bill - like having a power to trigger an Ofsted inspection into a school which is promoting local concern and to refer schools’ admission arrangements to the Schools Adjudicator.

It’s neither safe nor sustainable to have so much power invested at the centre.

We have already seen the meltdown over Academy funding, as the Department for Education struggles to directly fund so many schools.

But perhaps we can be more ambitious and learn from international models.

District Superintendents in Canada are all former teachers or heads.

Their main focus is on supporting schools to ensure all have a clear and deliverable commitment to continuous improvement. They don’t meddle in how a good school is running, but they respond to parental concerns where schools are failing, or coasting.

Rhonda Evans, who spent two weeks making a film about the school system in Alberta says: “At local level, the superintendent influences the culture and priorities of the district, and this crucial role is filled by only the best and brightest of former principals.”

By contrast, Joel Klein in New York did not have a teaching background, but results in New York City have improved since the Mayor was given the power to appoint a Schools Chancellor.

A local Schools Commissioner accountable to elected councillors, local parents and central government could be tasked with improving schools by promoting collaboration and helping all schools deliver the new floor standards.

It would provide clear local leadership on schools, giving parents confidence that the local school system as a whole was being driven to improve.

Not random new schools popping up where there happen to be the most articulate parents, but a school system which responds effectively to all parents’ concerns.

Sometimes new schools would be the solution, but as often as not it would be about spreading the best leadership in a local area more widely.

The best schools and best departments working with weaker ones so that every child gets the best of what an area has to offer – responding to their interests and talents.

Michael Gove needs to urgently rediscover localism or the headache of directly overseeing 20,000 schools from Whitehall will only get worse for him.

More power to teachers

The fourth area where he needs to build consensus is professional autonomy.

International evidence is clear: the status, expertise and professionalism of teachers have an important impact on standards.

Michael Barber has said that systems on the path from good to great need to focus on the teaching profession, and making it as clearly defined as medicine and law.

PISA echoes this principle of placing teaching on a par with other professions.

The last decade has seen teaching transformed – from a profession demoralised and undervalued to the top destination for Oxbridge graduates.

But creating the best teaching profession in the world should be a national mission in the coming years.

I believe the Government risks sending confusing signals here, as in other areas.

Despite positive moves to build on Teach First, I believe Michael Gove has shown a disregard for the status of the profession by allowing free schools to employ unqualified individuals to teach.

Call me old-fashioned, but parents should be secure in the knowledge that all publicly-funded schools will employ teachers with relevant training and qualifications.

I support innovative approaches to get the best possible candidates into teaching.

But focusing solely on recruitment and initial training will take many years to make a difference to schools, neglecting the children in the middle of their education.

We know there is a very small minority of poor teachers, and they can’t be allowed to drift on damaging the life chances of children.

But there are many other teachers who simply require more support to go from average to good, and then great.

Isn’t there a case for working towards making teaching a masters-level profession, following the example of the best school systems around the world?

This could be part of a five-yearly revalidation process, or a Licence to Teach that Labour proposed and would like to come back to.

It could include an expectation that every teacher would work towards a relevant masters course, which had school improvement as an explicit focus.

At Perry Beaches School in Birmingham, more than 40 staff – and the head teacher - enrolled on a Masters course. The school was the most improved comprehensive in this year’s league tables –– with 74% of students obtaining 5 good GCSEs including English and Maths, up from just 21% 3 years ago.

If we can find a way of hardwiring continuous professional development into the ethos of teachers and schools, we know remarkable results can be achieved.

In the world’s top-performing school systems, teachers cannot progress without showing they have tackled the challenges of struggling schools.

I also think there’s a case for looking at whether, on completion of a masters course, teachers could receive Chartered Teacher Status and register with a professional body.

The GTCE was far from perfect, but it cannot be right that the Secretary of State is judge and jury over every teacher with regards their professional conduct.

Doctors, lawyers, engineers – they wouldn’t accept this. And neither should teachers.

Chartered status could be regularly reviewed, with evidence of commitment to school improvement required to retain the status.

In conclusion, Labour's approach to education policy will be drawn from what the PISA evidence identifies as the defining characteristics of the best systems: comprehensive and collaborative, autonomous schools in a strong system.

So we will look at an entitlement for every child, rethinking comprehensive education, the role of the local authority and professional development for new times.

I have signalled before that I won’t operate blanket opposition to the Secretary of State’s reforms.

By definition, Free Schools and academies are free to set themselves up in such a way that they can embody the comprehensive ideal and maintain a broad focus catering for every child.

So I won’t oppose or close them but will judge them on their merits.

But I do have real worries that, with schools operating in an atomised competitive free-for-all, we will see over time the emergence of a two-tier system.

A narrow, performance measure focused on the top 25% of children could mean some children disengage from education with passions not ignited and talents not found.

I see a Secretary of State with a plan for some schools and some children, not all schools and all children. And it worries me intensely. Like Sweden, I fear England is sleepwalking towards a more selective and segregated system.

My plea to him today is to prove me wrong.

Let’s work together and rebalance these reforms and give power back to parents, public and the professionals.