And so we come full circle. In 2010 the Cambridge Primary Review presented party leaders with eleven post-election policy priorities for primary education. Distilled from the Review’s evidence and from public discussion of its final report, these urged a more principled approach to election perennials such as curriculum, assessment, standards and accountability while asking political leaders to frame such vital matters by something a bit more visionary than ‘zero tolerance’, ‘tough’, ‘relentless’ and those other pugilistic epithets of political choice that betray such a limited view of the education of young children. Judging by the 2015 manifestos, even that was too much to ask.
Yet during the early days of the coalition government we sensed encouraging movement on several of CPR’s priorities. The Pupil Premium aimed to tackle the twin challenges of social disadvantage and educational underperformance, challenges that headed our 2010 list; government enquiries were initiated on curriculum, assessment, professional standards and primary school staffing – the last of these specifically at CPR’s request and with CPR involvement; and the new government’s ministers promised to re-empower teachers after 13 years of Labour prescription and micro-management.
But the honeymoon was short, the enquiries’ outcomes were pre-empted by narrow terms of reference and disdain for evidence and genuine debate, and the old language and mindsets soon reasserted themselves. With a vengeance, indeed, for the national curriculum became narrower, testing became more obsessive, accountability more punitive, and ministerial interventions more abusive. As for the vision of 21st century primary education that CPR had offered but policymakers had evaded, this advanced no further than the PISA league tables: a reasonable aspiration in terms of standards in the basics, certainly, but hardly a rounded education.
Consequently, when the Cambridge Primary Review Trust was launched in 2013, we felt obliged to retain some of CPR’s 2010 priorities alongside others that the new organisation wished to pursue. So in the current list of CPRT priorities, to which I return below, curriculum and assessment remain in need of genuine reform rather than the ideological gerrymandering to which we have been treated, and closing the wealth/wellbeing/attainment gap is still at the top of our list because what government has given with one hand via the Pupil Premium it has taken away with another through economic and social policies that have made Britain the most unequal OECD country in Europe in terms of income distribution, with 3.5 million of its children living in poverty (with numbers predicted to rise further) and one million people dependent on food banks.
That is not all. At the end of CPR’s final report we noted the intense pressures to which by 2009 primary schools were subject but applauded their vital communal role in a changing, fractured and unequal society and their maintenance, against the odds, of a stable core of humane and enlightened values. This being so – and it was an outstanding achievement – we felt able to conclude that on balance the condition of England’s primary education system, though severely stressed and in need of rebalancing, was sound.
Others, though agreeing with CPR’s judgement about individual schools, were less sanguine about the system as a whole. If in 2010 this was open to debate, in 2015 it no longer is. For the word ‘system’ implies unity, coherence, consistency and hence equity, and in England these conditions no longer apply.
Thus the checks and balances vital to education in a democracy have been swept away, and without local mediation schools have little protection from ministers’ caprice, megalomania or what NAHT’s Russell Hobby calls their ‘crazy schemes’ – those back-of-the-envelope bids for media headlines that teachers and school leaders are forced by legislation or Ofsted’s compliance checks to implement, regardless of their cost to children’s education or teachers’ self-esteem.
The schooling structure itself is deeply fractured by gross discrepancies in the level and quality of local support on which schools can draw, and the ideological drive for academies and free schools. This sector, expanded by dint of grand promises, ominous threats and questionable evidence, is privileged by greater freedoms, grandiose management titles, inflated top salaries and, some suggest, gongs in return for compliance. Meanwhile, rank and file staff are under unprecedented pressure and the number of teachers prematurely leaving the profession is at a ten-year high. Not only mid-career burnout either: though the exact number is disputed, it is clear that many teachers leave within a year of qualifying.
Hardly a ‘system’ worthy of the name, then, let alone one which it is at ease with itself.
Yet the paradox identified in the Cambridge Primary Review final report – of individual schools doing wondrous things for and with their pupils, not least in circumstances of exceptional social challenge and against a background of system fragmentation and policy folly – continues to apply. These blogs have so far included reports from two such schools with which CPRT is working closely, and the blog that will follow this one provides inspiring evidence from a third, Sarah Rutty’s school in Leeds. What is doubly impressive is that Sarah, together with Jo Evans and Iain Erskine, who provided the earlier blogs from schools, so manage the taxing circumstances of education in 2015 that they are able both to lead outstanding schools and to give time, energy and experience to supporting the work of CPRT.
But those wider social challenges are not receding and one of them, population growth and the widening gap between the number of school places required – 900,000 over the next decade – and the number available – is likely to become very pressing indeed during the next parliamentary term.
Indeed it already is. In some local authorities, only a minority of parents secure their first choice of primary school for their children, and this transfers pressure from schools to families, with children facing longer journeys to and from school, siblings attending different schools, increased traffic congestion, and diminishing opportunities for friendships made within school to be maintained outside it. Primary schools, meanwhile, get bigger and bigger. They cope, as our schools always do, with this as with other externally-induced challenges. Yet at what cost to children and teachers?
Which brings us to the election manifestos. In this last matter there is widespread concern that the coming crisis over primary school places has neither registered with the political parties nor been included in their costings. Maintaining school spending at current levels won’t be enough. Is this policy lacuna emblematic of a more general loss of touch with reality?
The manifestos themselves were helpfully prefigured in Greg Frame’s recent blog and detailed in the BBC’s excellent policy guide, while the blogs of both Warwick Mansell and Stephanie Northen drew attention to the conflicting languages, within both the Conservative and Labour manfestos, of support and retribution.
It is of course easy to dismiss manifestos as cynical posturing; worse, as in the case of the LibDems’ 2010 commitment to scrapping university tuition fees, as promises waiting to be broken. It is certainly the case that what matters is what political parties do, not what they say they will do. The promise most regularly and predictably broken by both Conservative and Labour is to reduce government prescription and give teaching back to teachers. Fine sentiments in opposition, but observe what happens when your friendly ministerial wannabe succumbs to the power of the big desk, ministerial car, obsequious officials, callow advisers and hungry press: ‘For I also am set under authority … and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.’ Small wonder that most ministers lose touch with reality within a few minutes of arriving in Sanctuary Buildings.
At this election, then, those voters for whom education matters would do well to pay greater attention to each party’s record than to their manifesto promises. It’s an exercise from which none of the three main parties emerges unscathed. And after this election we must hope that what may be a novel chemistry of votes, personalities and minority parties will create political space for what really matters. Such as, of course, the priorities that CPRT has been pursuing since 2013. Here they are again:
- Equity. Tackle the continuing challenge of social and educational disadvantage, and find practical ways to help schools to close the associated gaps in educational attainment.
- Voice. Advance children’s voice and rights in school and classroom in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Community. Promote community engagement and cohesion through school-community links and a community curriculum that supplements and enriches the national curriculum, and by developing communal values in school and classroom.
- Sustainability. Embed sustainability and global citizenship in educational policy and practice, linking to the UN agenda for global education after 2015.
- Aims. Develop and apply a coherent vision for 21st century primary education; enact CPR’s aims through curriculum, pedagogy and the wider life of the school.
- Curriculum. Develop a broad, balanced and rich entitlement curriculum which responds to both national and local need, eliminates the damaging division of status and quality between core and non-core, and teaches every subject, domain or aspect to the highest possible standard.
- Pedagogy. Develop a pedagogy of repertoire, rigour, evidence and principle, rather than mere compliance, with a particular emphasis on fostering the high quality classroom talk which children’s development, learning and attainment require.
- Assessment. Encourage approaches to assessment that enhance learning as well as test it, that support rather than distort the curriculum and that pursue standards and quality in all areas of learning, not just the core subjects.
To which, in light of the experience of the past five years, I propose two more. One is from CPR’s 2010 list of policy priorities which seems as remote a possibility now as it was then, yet for that very reason needs to be repeated. The other arises from the discussion above.
- Policy. Reverse the centralising thrust of recent policy. End government micro-management of teaching. Re-invigorate parental and community engagement. Replace myth, spin and the selective use of evidence by genuine debate. Restore the checks and balances which are vital to the formulation of sound policy.
- The education system. Call a halt to those policies that have so severely fragmented England’s education system, setting school against school, increasing inequalities in provision, encouraging bullying and scapegoating in the name of accountability, and destroying professional morale. Aim instead for coherence, consistency, the equitable distribution of resources, accountability for policy as well as teaching, and a culture of mutual support and respect. Replace political posturing and ministerial machismo by a sustainable vision for children, their world and their education.
Yet, and to return to that judgement about the state of England’s education system in the Cambridge Primary Review final report, if the policy process requires reform far more radical than anything ministers have imposed on schools, it’s the schools themselves that continue to provide the best grounds for optimism. So it’s fitting that this rather depressing assessment of the national scene will be followed, in CPRT’s next blog, by news of an utterly inspiring kind from a primary school in Leeds whose head has joined the CPRT community and is leading one of its networks.
As with all CPRT blogs, the views expressed above are the author’s own and, apart from the quoted CPRT priorities, do not necessarily reflect the position of the Trust as a whole.