Michael Gove has big plans for the English school system. He knows that the current performance of schools just isn’t good enough. England continues to slip down the international education league tables. Almost half of all 16-year-olds leave school without five decent GCSEs – and those who are on free school meals are twice as likely to do so as their wealthier peers.
Since taking office six months ago, the Education Secretary has undertaken a significant programme of structural reforms, creating more academies and allowing the establishment of new free schools. Most importantly, he understands what really makes the difference – better quality teaching, which in July Mr Gove described as “the single most important thing in education”. This focus is correct: studies show that, contrary to popular myth, it is teaching quality rather than class size that really makes the difference to pupils’ educational progress. The difference between a high-performing teacher and a low-performing one could be as much as three or four GCSE grades for each pupil.
Yet for all its reforming zeal, the Government may be in danger of missing its target. The plans to bring more good teachers into the profession, for example by expanding the successful Teach First programme, are right. But Reform’s new report, Every teacher matters, argues that Ministers have given too little attention to the much more important task of improving the existing workforce of 447,000 teachers.
Successive governments have created and then enlarged a bureaucracy designed to allow government to take control of improving teaching. The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) defines the standards teachers are supposed to meet. Ofsted inspects the teaching that goes on in classrooms. The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services prescribes a compulsory qualification for all new headteachers. Local authorities get stuck in too, deploying School Improvement Partners to monitor schools’ performance.
But this programme of intervention has failed to deliver results. Worse, by taking the responsibility for improving teaching away from schools, it has left many headteachers impotent to deal with underperformance. Lots of schools, for example, find it difficult to remove persistently poor teachers, since they technically satisfy the woolly standards set out by the TDA. The National College’s qualification for new heads covers leadership, culture and ethos in great detail, but fails to train heads in the essential management skills they need to actually run a school. The pay and conditions agreements for teachers force heads to emphasise the number of staff they employ, rather than their quality.
Reform’s research found, however, that there are some schools that do things differently. These high performers ignore the reams of government prescription and do things their own way. Headteachers set their own rigorous, specific performance targets for their teachers and hold them to account for meeting them. They establish their own programmes of training for their staff, building into the daily culture of the school lesson observation and the sharing of best practice. Where a staff member just doesn’t (or can’t) improve, they manage them out quickly, often working with rather than against the unions to do so.
The Government has made some positive steps in shrinking the educational bureaucracy, abolishing the General Teaching Council for England, tightening Ofsted’s remit and closing the pay body for school support staff. But if it wants the schools revolution to be a success, it must go further. The Education Secretary must challenge the idea at the heart of the school system that responsibility for the quality of teaching should lie with government, rather than with schools. By sweeping away the bureaucratic web binding headteachers’ hands, Michael Gove can free schools to develop their own training for their staff and learn from those excellent schools that already know how to do this. A new education system would be created, one that encourages excellence and professionalism in teaching and celebrates rather than pays lip service to the idea that teaching can and must be better.
There would be another beneficial effect too: removing the agencies responsible for this bureaucracy, and allowing heads to focus on the quality of their staff rather than quantity (for example by getting rid of the teaching assistants who add little to the quality of education in many classrooms), could yield savings of over £2 billion a year, according to Reform’s research.
There is one important final step. In the absence of this bureaucratic machine, parents must be able to hold schools strongly to account for their performance, in turn making them focus on the quality of teaching as the biggest influence on their pupils’ achievement. The Government’s free schools programme is designed to do just this. But competition in the school system can only work to raise standards if there are enough schools to make heads focus on standards – parents need a genuine choice, which must mean many hundreds, if not thousands of new schools springing up across the country. The Government’s decision to prohibit profit-making companies from establishing free schools is a major barrier to this: they have the expertise and, crucially, the cash, to set up many new schools quickly, as they have in Sweden. Real accountability can be a hugely powerful tool to focus headteachers’ attention relentlessly on the quality of teaching in their schools. Michael Gove must not shy away from putting that power in parents’ hands.