Open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education 9th May 2015

Dear Secretary of State,

I have had the privilege of working with many of your predecessors and their Ministers over the past 25 years. Distinguished politicians have their framed photographs on the wall in the foyer of the Department of Education, dating back to the early post‐war years. Your photo will one day join them. Your influence over hundreds of thousands of everyday lives will be significant during your term in office, and perhaps beyond.

Education has featured rarely in the national election campaign. At local level on the doorstep, voters spoke only of having a good local school – that was their proper message. The British public has also rejected the idea of politicians ‘weaponising’ the National Health Service. Might you be a pioneer and establish a parallel National Education Service, with a view to taking the detail of education practice out of the political arena? What a legacy that would be.

The distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh titled his recent autobiography Do no harm, a singular message he wishes to pass on to all doctors. As the new Secretary of State, please make sure the first question you ask your DfE and political advisers is: ‘Do we need a new policy in education?’ (It seems likely doesn’t it that the government will have bigger fish to fry in the coming parliament.)

There are two key areas of education policy and practice where we need your legitimate democratic leadership:

  1. Establishing a fair funding system for primary, special and secondary schools across the country
  1. Securing a sustainable stream of good entrants into the teaching profession.

Concentrate on these two pivotal issues and you will win plaudits from 25,000 headteachers, voters, and fellow politicians. If you subscribe to the self‐improving school system, you might do little else, besides being a careful and thoughtful guardian. Don’t be tempted to put your indelible stamp on the Office with further initiatives. Rather, leave in five years’ time (Theresa May is a model to follow) proud to have done no harm.

If you stray beyond the two areas above, please opt for sustaining and embedding what has been legislated for in recent times: all schools good schools; raised levels of accountability and pupils’ achievements; the new curriculum and examination arrangements; pupil premium funding.

Finally, daring you to be different in just one direction: suspend Ofsted inspections of good and outstanding schools for one year; afford headteachers the space to shape that self‐improving, self‐ regulating school system. Then go visit a hundred schools and ask their views.

I’m sure the profession, governors, pupils and parents wish you well in your new Office of State. With a little more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Less is always more.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Blatchford, Director, National Education Trust

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Herd Immunity

The last few years has seen a rise in the number of cases of measles in the United Kingdom. The reduction in the percentage of children being vaccinated, either with MMR or with the single measles vaccine, makes it easier for the virus to spread and this has prompted action from policy makers and health professionals.

Vaccination works on herd immunity, meaning that a certain percentage of the population need to be vaccinated to make it extremely difficult for the virus to spread. This varies from virus to virus, but for measles herd immunity is achieved when 95% of the population are vaccinated. Above this number everyone’s happy. Below it, things start to happen.

In this case 95% can be effectively considered to be ALL.

In the field of education it is obvious that the only figure we can use to define ALL children is 100%. Unfortunately politicians develop policies that exclude a certain percentage of students and leave them exposed to the symptoms of the metaphorical policy virus. In some cases policies have been enacted that politicians are perfectly aware disadvantage a percentage of the population. In other cases the realisation has been retrospective. I shall provide examples of each.

In an article for the Sunday Times on the 1st February 20151, Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan wrote that she would “launch a war on illiteracy and innumeracy.”

We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel. They should be able to write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar,” she said. In this case I suspect that Mrs Morgan simply didn’t realise, despite her position, that some children have profound and multiple learning difficulties and that, aged 11, may well be at the 12 months level of development, for example.

So, in this case, all doesn’t really mean all. By extension, though, she demeans the achievements of a small, but complex, percentage of the population. Their achievements count for nought as the above target becomes the sole definition of success. It also makes it significantly harder for schools to be more inclusive as there will always be some students that will not achieve this at the age of 11.

The scrapping of National Curriculum levels in September 2014 was another example of a complete failure to consider 100% of children when formulating policy. National Curriculum levels no longer exist, but P-Scales do. My suspicion is that policy makers were oblivious to the existence of P-Scales until it was too late. An announcement was made and then someone like me asked the awkward question, “What about P-Scales?” Cue nervous scrabbling around before a swift decision to keep them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s worse. Maybe they were aware and that suggests a clear lack of understanding of how those children develop and progress.

For three years I was fortunate to have the Secretary of State for Education as my local MP. Michael Gove used to meet with local Headteachers termly and this provided us with an ideal opportunity to bend his ear about policy. I was able to do so when the Year 1 phonics check was launched. Research findings suggest that phonological awareness in children with Down syndrome is only weakly associated with learning to read2. They tend to be more successful with a logographic approach and I brought this to his attention. I explained that this check could artificially label some children as poor readers/failures. His response was to say that he was fully aware of this, but that a measure was required and that this was the best option. In this case the policy was created in the full knowledge that the progress in reading of some students would be excluded, but this was considered acceptable.

In January 2012 Michael Gove cut the value in school league tables of over 3,000 vocational qualifications in an attempt to stop “inflated league table rankings3. There may well have been large-scale gaming in order to influence league table positions (the incentives that drove the behaviour of schools is an article in itself; however the academic good/vocational bad message was a clear one.

I am fortunate to have a very intelligent parent population and they are utterly convinced of the critical role of vocational education for children with learning difficulties. With only 10% of adults with learning difficulties in work4, and the majority of them part-time, only a fool would exclude this from their curriculum. The message from the centre, though, was clear. These are poor, second-class qualifications compared to academic equivalents.

I was very hopeful in the early stages of this parliament. We had a Prime Minister with a son who attended a special school, a Secretary of State for Education whose sister had been to a special school and a former special school Headteacher as Chief Executive of the National College of Teaching and Leadership. We couldn’t have been better placed for all to truly mean all, for education policy to be truly inclusive. And yet, on the eve of a general election with virtually no serious debate on education policy, we still have our most vulnerable children excluded from the herd.

Jarlath O’Brien is Headteacher of Carwarden House Community School, an 11-19 special academy in Surrey, and a NET Leading Thinker.

1 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1513958.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2015_01_31

2 http://www.down-syndrome.org/reviews/2066/

3 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16808902

4 https://www.mencap.org.uk/about-learning-disability/information-professionals/employment