Nick Brook is NAHT’s deputy general secretary and is the chair of its School Improvement Commission.
Young people have suffered greatly during this pandemic, and the Government is correct to put a high priority on preserving their education. We want schools, nurseries and colleges to be open.
In this regard, the Government relies heavily on the determination and skill of school leaders. Although many school leaders are having sleepless nights about the task in front of them, none of them are shirking it.
Keeping a school open at the moment is difficult enough, with lockdowns and restrictions set to continue for weeks or even months more. But to keep children and young people learning, we need the Government to support schools with some fundamental, but achievable, actions in the immediate term.
First, the additional costs that schools are incurring to make their workplaces Covid-secure are significant. The Government must make an immediate public promise to cover these costs in full. Anything less risks raiding school budgets for hand sanitiser when the money should be spent on learning.
At the start of the pandemic, routine Ofsted inspections were suspended. By now, we hoped that we would be through the worst of the pandemic, but we aren’t.
Quite apart from thinking about ‘catch-up’, schools are quite rightly worried about making sure pupils don’t fall even further behind. This critical work should not be interrupted by the return of routine inspections in January, when the work of schools will still be anything but ‘routine’.
Routine inspection is an essential part of our education system. It should return – just not in the middle of a crisis. Right now, we need schools to remain focused on the task in hand, not focused on becoming ‘Ofsted-ready’.
In the most challenging circumstances since 1945, school leaders and their teams have kept education going and children learning.
Yet the pandemic has compounded the sense of dissatisfaction with the state of education that had begun to grow amongst some leaders before the crisis hit. I have become increasingly concerned by the number of colleagues saying they are intending to leave the profession once they’ve guided their schools through the pandemic. We need to prevent this.
Whilst it’s essential to deal with the here and now, the Government also needs to find the bandwidth to look ahead and talk about what the future will look like.
In normal times, education reform is like trying to change the wheels on a car whilst it hurtles along the road. This year, the car ground to a halt. There will be few opportunities like this, certainly in our lifetime, to fix the wheels and start off in a new direction.
When we emerge from the pandemic, there can be no sense of merely flicking a switch and returning to the way things were. And we cannot wait until the pandemic passes before considering how education must change in the future.
This week, NAHT publishes the report of the School Improvement Commission, which drew together a world-class panel of minds to debate and deliver a set of recommendations for improving schools further. At its heart is a simple belief that schools are only as good as the people that are in them.
Without question, education standards in this country have transformed over the last 25 years. By all measures, we have the best cadre of professionals that have ever worked in our schools. But we have to go further.
The rising tide of school improvement has not lifted all boats. Even before the pandemic hit, annual improvements in pupil outcomes had started to slow, and the wide gap in attainment between children from poorer backgrounds and their more affluent peers had stopped closing.
Schools are only as good as the people that work in them. In order that every child has the chance to achieve their full potential we need every pupil to be taught by an expert teacher. We need to create the conditions in which every teacher can be the very best that they can be. We need schools to be geared up to be effective learning organisations, not just for the pupils that attend them but for the staff that work there. Great teachers are made; they are not born that way.
Yet access to high quality training and support for teachers and leaders is variable, at best. To raise standards of education in this country further, the school improvement commission concluded that the next phase of education reform should focus on transforming the quality of training and support for teachers and leaders, including a commitment to a minimum entitlement to professional development and a new bursary fund to widen participation in such activity.
We would like to see multi-academy trusts (MATs), local authorities (LAs) and maintained schools sharing expertise freely with one another. The action for government here is to fund schools and colleges sufficiently so that they don’t feel the need to sell support and expertise to bolster their budgets.
We also need to make it easier and more attractive to school leaders to work in the most deprived areas of the country. It has always been the case that leaders who make this choice are accepting some exceptionally ‘high-risk’ posts. An enhanced package of support for these leaders would help spread their expertise more widely and reduce the risk for them professionally.
It is my belief that this kind of transformation in the way we approach education is not only advisable, it is essential.
NAHT’s School Improvement Commission has set out a roadmap, not only to address the danger of a post-covid exodus of leaders, but to deliver on the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. After all, the success of that agenda rests not so much with ministers, but on the shoulders of school leaders and their teams.