Build Back Bolder: Five Choices All School Leaders Can Make

It’s clearly springtime and maybe for the first time in 12 months there is hope in the air. As our classrooms fill up again, we are all starting to ask the question, with the same air of slight confusion, that King George III asks in Hamilton, “what comes next….do you have a clue what happens now?”.

Joe Biden’s successful campaign slogan was “Build Back Better”. So catchy was it, that Boris Johnson borrowed it for some of his press conferences. In education, sadly there are some who seem to have little interest in building back better. It seems ministers just want to find their way back to exactly where we were, doubling down on more academisation, more EBacc, more phonics screening and how on earth they might restore their pernicious Progress 8 calculation. Ofsted seems unable to think beyond how soon can graded inspections return. Clearer-thinking leaders reject a return to the status quo, seeking to go beyond “catch up”, and instead talking about reconnection, renewal and how we can build a better system.

So… what comes next…do you have a clue what happens now?

At an individual school level, I don’t worry about the answer. We have a generation of school leaders who, over the last 12 months, have proved to be resilient, ingenious, creative and brave. Schools are in the best possible hands and our young people will be just fine. As a system though, it is less clear and less certain. Having respond in the most extraordinary ways throughout this crisis, we should be confident, and we should be bold.

And while we can rail against all of the tone-deaf messaging from outside – the return of graded Ofsted inspections, restoring progress 8, bringing back league table, the pay freezes, and all of the other things we know will drive more people from the profession, but sit outside our control – now is a time to look at what we, as leaders, can control. This is a moment to remember that not everything that is bad in the system is done to us; much of it comes from the choices school leaders make and the behaviour we choose.

So here are five choices we can all make; five things that if we all did, the school system post-pandemic would be fundamentally different to the one we operated in before the world had heard of Covid-19.

Stop playing the zero-sum game

League tables, as an indicator of school and student performance, are badly flawed. Progress 8, the measure on which secondary schools are still judged and on which knighthoods have been awarded and careers lost, is one big zero-sum game in which for every winner, there has to be a loser. Its fixed points (and comparable outcomes) mean we can never show whether schools are improving collectively. But worse than that, we all know that it advantages schools in particular areas and disadvantages others; it makes school leadership in many isolated coastal communities cripplingly difficult and masks important stuff like the fact that when context is taken into account, schools in Yorkshire and the Humber are the second highest performing in England. This measure should now be so discredited that the DfE daren’t ever utter its name again; so why isn’t it?

Because so many schools still chase it and laud it over others when they do well. How often do schools who shout about the measure on their websites explain what it really means? Do any schools ever caveat their data with honesty? How many say, “this is great, but please understand the context of our school has made this more achievable than a school on the coast or in Barnsley?”. When I was a Headteacher I never did. I wish I had.

Almost every piece of sharp and unethical practice in the system comes down to choosing to play the game. Some school leaders coined the phrase “anchor students” – those who will drag down the school’s league table position. Some school leaders have then gone on to off-roll such students, moving them into inappropriate provision. Some school leaders have encouraged parents to “educate” their child at home to avoid an exclusion that would appear on the school’s data. Leaders who have bent the rules of the game have damaged thousands of young people and made the lives of school leaders who want to do the right thing impossibly difficult at times.

Progress 8, as a measure is rubbish, but it is we, as school leaders, who have perpetuated the myth that it means something. And it is school leaders who can decide today that we are stopping. Stop chasing the measure and start being honest about what it really is.

Care as much about the young people in the school down the road as we do about the young people in our schools

So much of what is wrong in our system comes from competition. We are set up to compete with other schools in our zero-sum accountability system; we compete for new students; we compete for funding and specialist designations through competitive bidding. It is a system based on the principles of the free market – that competition drives quality and the threat of the dire consequences of “losing” in league tables or with Ofsted motivates schools to get better.

Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. What it most certainly has done is encourage leaders to seek to gain advantage over other schools. Think about that for a second. And now replace the word “school” with “other children”. When we compete with other schools, we seek to gain advantage over other children.

Now think how different schools could be if all school leaders cared as much about children in the school down the road as we do about our own.

Remove every barrier to good teaching

For our schools to get better and for our young people to thrive post-Covid, we need great teachers; lots and lots of great teachers. In fact, we need one in every single classroom in the country, in every single lesson. It would be more effective than catch up programmes and summer schools and messing around with term dates. Just lots of great teachers.

The problem we have is that there are still too many things in schools that get in in way of great teaching and we ask teachers to do too many things that have no impact on improving students’ outcomes. There is no better time than right now for every school leader in the country to look again at everything we do and everything that wastes time or gets in the way of great teaching. Some of the things that should be abandoned include: performance related pay; performance development systems that have more than one target; onerous marking policies; unclear behaviour systems; teachers doing their own detentions; written lesson plans; mocksteds; all staff emails and anything “for Ofsted”.

The best way to start is to talk to staff and invite them to suggest anything they want to abandon. They if their suggestions don’t genuinely improve outcomes then do some spring cleaning and chuck them out.

Stop asking people to choose between being a good teacher and a good parent

We all know that workload has been, and continues to be, one of the biggest problems in our schools. Too many teachers still leave the profession because work becomes all-encompassing and forces them to choose between work and family. And for those who stay, too many still feel conflicted and guilty, making the daily choice between feeling like a terrible teacher or a terrible parent – and often ending up feeling like both.

If the price of a school’s Year 11 students getting good results is that their teachers’ own children don’t see mum or dad on a single Sunday afternoon for a year, then the price is simply too high. We have to find a better way and schools will never have a great teacher in every classroom if the experience of our teachers is a perpetual battle between work and home.

Accept that we are the change we seek

This one is straight from Obama. If we want things to change, it has to be this generation of school leaders that does it. We have shown during the pandemic that our schools are full of the most extraordinary, innovative, creative and determined people. The last 12 months have seen civic leadership at its best.

It is time for us to be the ones who build back bolder.

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