A tale of two education announcements

October 17, 2014

On Sunday morning, Tristram Hunt suggested that teachers swear an oath to uphold their professionalism. This provoked, as John Blake of Labour Teachers said on the TES blog, outrage, mockery and bafflement. On Sunday evening, the Government came out with the latest plans for turning around failing schools. By contrast, this was reasonably well received including by secondary heads union ASCL (less so by their primary counterparts NAHT).

I’m actually a fan of both proposals – or at least what the oath represents for the former. But these two announcements provide an interesting illustration as to the current state of education political comms, and the political feelings of teachers.

The proposed oath is actually only the latest in what is shaping up to be quite a well rounded offer by Labour towards teachers around the overall theme of teacher quality. In the last year there have been announcements on QTS for all, on revalidation, on career structures and master teachers, on a royal college, and hints towards moves on workload and greater CPD support (where I suspect only a lack of a specific idea, and cost, respectively, is holding back formal proposals). Taken together, these can be drawn into a narrative that says: teacher quality is key, but that simply entering ITT at 21 and teaching for 40 yrs plus isn’t acceptable any more (if it ever was), so there needs to be a new approach to the ongoing development of teachers, including regular challenge and support to continue to develop their professionalism. Taken in this context, the oath, though a little gimmicky on its own, is simply a vocal commitment at the start of a teachers’ career to recognise the solemnity of entering this high status high valued profession. But has such a narrative ever been woven together with real details and policy crunch? Not really as far as I can see, and I watch these things pretty closely. It certainly wasn’t in Tristram’s party conference speech. So teachers are left to draw them together themselves to understand the whole package, or resort to mocking individual elements. Why did the Shadow Education team not publish a draft “White Paper” for teachers this summer, for example, setting all this out in a series of easily digestible and very specific policy commitments?

The government announcement (or to be more specific the Tory proposal for 2015 onwards) is actually less detailed. All it formally says is that the government will draw up a list with the EEF of some evidence based interventions and get the new RSCs to apply them to failing schools, augmented by a new National Teaching Service who can be sent in to support these schools for a time limited period. Again, this is broadly positive – the National Teaching Service is in line with various existing small targeted teacher deployment programmes (of which Talented Leaders is the most recent and I understand will be closely linked to the new NTS) and area based interventions. The most significant thing to me is the explicit widening of the RSCs job description to cover all schools (not just Academies) – something which is in line with our recent work (and actually what David Blunkett recommended and which Labour have formally adopted). I continue to argue that the government should go further and pre-emptively group schools into Academy chains to be more proactive in building capacity for improvement, rather than needing to focus every few years on what external interventions could be used for failing schools. But despite being on the face of it pretty controversial, reaction has been reasonably positive or neutral (though both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have, unsurprisingly, questioned it). I think that’s because it does seem part of a consistent narrative which the Tories have pushed hard through the latter part of Gove era and now under Nicky Morgan – focussing on school to school partnerships, the role of a ‘middle tier’, and a focus on supporting evidence based interventions through the EEF. Labour’s response is also slightly odd – I think they would have been on stronger grounds saying “yes, welcome your conversion to what we’ve said for a while with our proposal for new Directors of School Standards. What else of ours would you like to adopt?”

Lastly, the widespread mockery of #teacheroath on Twitter on Sunday (trending no2 UK wide at one point) was accompanied by a lot of anger and frustration. Twitter is not representative of all teachers. But it does perhaps show that although Labour traditionally has a strong lead on education amongst both the public in general and teachers, they would perhaps be unwise to bank on significant turnout in 2015 on education issues. For reasons I set out in my fringe speech at Labour party conference, I think there’s a way to address this. But some savvier political comms and a clear exposition of policies would certainly help.

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