Dear Damian Hinds,
Congratulations on your new job. As someone who worked for a decade in the classroom, and in that time was also actively involved in the National Union of Teachers and education politics, I’ve seen up close both the work of five of your predecessors, and the nexus of hyper-activist trade unionists, educational academics, local authority bureaucrats and semi-journalists who made up what Michael Gove called “The Blob”.
How you approach that coterie will be crucial to your tenure: they will tell you that the schools system you’ve inherited is in crisis because schools are underfunded and no-one wants to work in them.
On the first, they’re simply wrong: the government has (correctly) pursued a National Funding Formula (NFF), designed to ensure that schools are fairly funded for the number and nature of the students they serve, and a recent £1.3bn injection into the NFF pot means that the resources are there for all schools to get at least a small increase and in some cases up to 10 per cent.
On recruitment and retention there is a case to answer: the total number of people accepted by teacher training providers this December compared to last is down 33 per cent, which is a shame – but not a surprise given recruitment targets have been missed for the last five years.
Getting teachers in has been matched by a problem of stopping them getting out, as the past years have seen upticks in the number of teachers leaving. However, teaching unions’ insistence that money would make the difference here also does not stack up: recent research found that departing teachers were, on average, earning 10 per cent lower salaries after they left the profession.
But, clearly, something must be done: and this is where some attention to what might be called the “constitutional architecture” of the English education system is important.
The effect of 20 years of legislative focus on schools has been to make a real difference to our kids – early years’ reading has enormously improved, as the recent international PIRLS results have shown – but has also left a lot of loose wiring, allowing bureaucrats to evade responsibility for the support they should be giving to the profession, with things such as recruitment.
On issues like ensuring sufficient school places, or driving up standards outside London, a plethora of individuals and institutions have developed: Regional School Commissioners, multi-academy trusts, local authorities, Opportunity Boards, and other quasi-public entities. Some are excellent additions to the educational landscape, such as Dixons Academies, in making enormous strides for pupil outcomes in Bradford and Leeds.
Some, however, are little more than Gove’s Blob back again in a new guise, ready to smile at the words of a kindly Education Secretary, even perhaps ready to parrot the catchphrases they introduce, but entirely unwilling to actually do the hard work required.
This is no mere technocracy: the Chief Inspector of Schools recently warned that the promise of the 2014 National Curriculum is at risk of not being fulfilled. Policy Exchange will shortly be publishing a report on how to ensure it is, but for such innovations to be effective, there needs to be a clean up of the structures and systems to ensure they align with ongoing drive for education reform, which has achieved so much in these past few years.
This work will be neither popular with vested interests within the system, some of whom are inside your own department, nor will it necessarily yield immediate results, but get it right, and you can make a huge difference to England’s young people.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph