I remember as a young English teacher in 1988 catching the whiff of anxiety and hope carried by the Education Reform Act and the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS). As it turned out, what felt like a caressing breeze was the storm-edge of the hurricane of school structural reform which has been whipping across the secondary landscape ever since.
In the early 90s I had the good fortune to find myself, whilst still young and full of hope, the deputy headteacher in an outstanding Essex secondary school led by one of those mythical figures – the Hero Headteacher.
My hero was on a mission to make his school both wealthy and successful. He certainly modelled those entrepreneurial and innovative approaches to leadership and governance espoused in the new national standards. Our school was one of the first through the Grant Maintained gateway and eagerly embraced Technology College Status so that by the end of 1994 we were able to interview prospective pupils to assess their technological aptitude, obviously having first whittled down the numbers through an NFER test.
These were halcyon days in shire counties: no interference from the local authority, or indeed from anyone else except for Ofsted every few years. Specialist School Status blossomed and by 2008 90% of secondary schools declared themselves to be specialising in one of ten different specialisms. We had become adept at setting targets, analysing data, using chances graphs and making predictions, not to mention bid-writing, securing sponsorship and promoting our school vision.
And standards did rise – or at least we were now comparing things with other things rather than just doing our own thing behind the classroom door!
Obviously some folk got upset, if, for example their children couldn’t get into their local school or they didn’t like the supposed specialism of that local school. Or perhaps because the new entrance foyer to their old secondary school didn’t seem to have helped much with behaviour, and they began to suspect that teaching their bog-standard child wasn’t number one on the school action plan.
Things did unravel a bit in 1998 with the introduction of a few more types of school: foundation schools emerged, alongside the existing voluntary aided and voluntary controlled schools (still keeping specialist schools), but luckily these became Trust schools, which cleared everything up.
Although a few academies had emerged from the Learning and Skills Act in 2000, matters really took off when the coalition government decided that the most important thing they needed to do for a country in crisis was to introduce some new types of school. These new converter academies and free schools helped to avoid secondary heads wasting time thinking and kept those enemies of promise, the local authority, too busy fast-tracking school conversions to go round championing children.
In his Annual report in 2013/14, Sir Michael Wilshaw (HMCI) pointed out that, ‘Primary schools in England are getting better but improvement in secondary schools has stalled.’ In 2014/15 he followed with, ‘Thousands of children leave primary school each year with a competency in reading, writing and mathematics that will set them up confidently for secondary school. It is a terrible waste that so many are subsequently failed by their local secondary school and their progress stalls after the age of 11.’
So, we secondary folk ask in indignation: what the hell have primary schools been getting up to over the last 20 years whilst their secondary colleagues were engaged with local battles over GM status; writing their specialist bids and securing the necessary sponsorship; setting up their foundations and trusts (and negotiating the necessary catering and cleaning contracts); taking over the lease of their land and buildings; establishing another type of legal governance; and, of course, having their school name boards changed….again?
Well, when I meet with primary headteachers, all they want to talk about is pedagogy and how their children learn, which is what I guess secondary headteachers wish they had the time to talk about. I can’t remember many conversations with primary schools about governance arrangements, leases, contracts or their status. And it looks to me as if they’ve, rather sneakily, been focussing on improving teaching, learning and assessment for a number of years whilst their secondary colleagues had their backs turned.
Still, perhaps now we’ve come up with multi-academy trusts (MATs) for primary schools we’ll at last be able to tear their attention away from the things that actually matter.
Melanie Saunders is County Manager for Educational Improvement – Hampshire County Council.