Is a centralised education system the government’s real priority?

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

There was a time – not so very long ago – when all the talk in government and beyond was of a school-led system. This week, in the meeting rooms and corridors at ASCL Council in Sheffield, the conversation has been about a government which is surreptitiously but relentlessly engaged in the opposite – a creeping process of centralisation.

Are we seeing a conspiracy where there is none? Let’s consider the evidence.

A Schools Bill which hands to the Education Secretary a long list of powers from the spiritual development of pupils to the length of the school day to the provision of careers guidance. 

A Schools White Paper which tells schools that the length of the week should be at least 32.5 hours regardless of context, professional judgement or any evidence about educational benefit. 

An overhaul of the teacher training system which looks suspiciously like an attempt to validate a particular pedagogical approach – via an accreditation process under which so few providers have so far made the cut that it may put at risk the capacity of the system.

The apparent suggestion that instead of schools deciding how to use funding from the pupil premium it will instead be spent on tutoring in the future.

You may have your own additions to this list. 

The government will, of course, deny that this is all a power-grab, and will offer various soothing reassurances.

It may well argue that its plan in the white paper for all schools to be academised and in multi-academy trusts by 2030 is evidence of the school-led system in action.

But when your curriculum is dominated by bloated GCSEs and KS2 tests, and patrolled by a fierce accountability regime; when your support for disadvantaged pupils is directed by Whitehall, alongside the way in which your teachers are taught; and when the Secretary of State holds powers over virtually every aspect of everything you do, it might not feel very school-led.

Which leads to the key point in all this. Who is better placed to decide on the education and support delivered to young people, or the length of the school day, or how future teachers are trained? Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall who rarely set foot in a school or college, let alone having led one? Or teachers and school leaders?

Certainly, it all seems a long way from the giddy rhetoric of the early 2010s which, in that misty-eyed Govean era, was all about the importance of trusting local leaders and putting the professionals in charge of the system in order to secure continual improvement.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that the current top-down managerial approach has absolutely nothing to do with the issues which are actually affecting schools and colleges.

The first of those is the ruinous increase in energy costs which is pushing budgets that are already under enormous strain to breaking point. Put simply, if costs rise then cuts will inevitably follow and that will affect provision.

The second is a looming teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Analysis by the Education Policy Institute this week showed the number of teachers quitting before they retire has risen, and the increase is particularly steep among headteachers. Meanwhile, teacher training recruitment was well below target in the most recent census, and was particularly catastrophic in subjects such as physics, computing and modern foreign languages.

Teaching is an engaging, energising and uplifting career. But if teachers are underpaid because of a decade of government-imposed pay erosion, and worn down by the underfunding of education and an overbearing accountability regime, then it is obviously going to be difficult to attract them to the classroom and keep them there.

And, of course, high-quality teachers are the lifeblood of a successful education system, the vital resource without which improvement is an impossibility.

Third on that list of the real issues affecting schools and colleges is the inspection system. The vast majority of teachers would rate Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement', according to a poll for The Times. 

The common view among school leaders is that negative Ofsted judgements do more harm than good – stigmatising the school concerned and actually making improvement more difficult. How long can we go on with a situation in which the body responsible for overseeing standards does not command the confidence of the teaching profession?

And so, it seems that we have a government which is preoccupied with how to exercise power, but which has little understanding of the real, tangible issues which are facing our schools and colleges or any great plan to deal with them. 

Is all of this feverish conspiracy theory borne out of the early summer heatwave? Or is this the smug new ‘we-know-better-than-you’ political reality, as the school-led system shrivels and dies?

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 17/06/2022 10:38:29