The White Paper: Not the Right Paper. Chapter 2: Interesting Ideas

Posted on March 22, 2016

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Yesterday I wrote the first chapter of my response to the DfE’s White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere (EEE). In it I outlined my thoughts about the ‘big ideas’, as I saw them, in the document. In this chapter I want to focus on the ‘interesting ideas’ before, in the next and final chapter, putting the case that there are a number of ‘nonsensical ideas’ within the 128 page document. For an explanation of my definitions have a look at the first sections of the first chapter which you can find here

Before I say more about the ‘interesting ideas’ I’d like to begin with another pet peeve that I have about the White Paper as a whole.  In her foreword, Nicky Morgan writes the following sentences:

“It’s an ambitious programme, and an exciting one. But the prize of securing educational excellence everywhere means it is the right thing to do.”

This in itself is pure Cameronism, a form of words that he borrowed from Tony Blair who utilised them a lot whenever his back was against the wall – most notably about the invasion of Iraq. To argue against this form of words is, by definition, the be arguing for “the wrong thing to do”. Notice that it is not the EEE that is “the right thing to do” but the programme put forward in the White Paper. Lots has been said about the perils of the ‘Nanny State’ by Conservative ministers over the last six years, but to claim a monopoly on unexplained rightness is, for me, the very epitome of a nannying approach. It brooks no argument and solicits no alternatives. 

And if you’re doubting me on this, have a good look at the sentence that immediately follows “the right thing to do”. In it Morgan says:

“I hope that teachers, leaders, governors and parents will join us in working to improve standards across the country, and will make the most of the opportunities on offer.”

In the words of Sunderland fans everywhere, it’s the “hope” that I can’t stand suggesting as it does that the government has the one true path and any diversion from it is an act of wanton vandalism or wilful insubordination. Since when have we got to the point in history that a minister with no experience in the profession has all the right answers?  At what point did it become received wisdom from the Westminster classes that those most closely involved with the education of children were the ones standing in the way of aspiration and commitment to educational excellence?  

In the very next words, blending two of the most hackneyed phrases in our profession, Morgan reminds us (as if we needed it) that “children only get one chance at education and every child deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential”.  Such language steals our professional integrity and sells it back to us for a profit or uses it to enforce acquiescence. Either way, it’s a rhetorical paradigm that we surely have to find a way to challenge soon if we are ever to get ourselves off the back foot within our own back yard. 

The Interesting Ideas

Many of the ideas from EEE that I consider to be ‘interesting’ (bearing in mind the fact that “may you live in interesting times” is the oldest curse) are the ones that most closely relate to the work of classroom practitioners. The 2010  Govean White Paper was entitled ‘The Importance of Teaching’, but this one tends to steer well clear of any references to teaching, and is instead almost entirely focused on the big systems and structures within which teaching operates. 

I’m not necessarily criticising it for this. It’s taken a while to get government out of the classroom and perhaps the most interesting of all the ideas in this paper is that Ofsted will consult about removing judgments about teaching, learning and assessment. What this White Paper talks about at length as a proxy for teaching is evidence-based practice and CPD. 

The first of these interesting ideas is the development of a set of standards for CPD. I know a few members of the group that have been working on this for some time and some of our staff participated in a discussion group to look at them in draft. That said, I know precious little about what will make its way into the document, but I am aware that a lot of time and ideas from a lot of people I trust have gone into them. What makes this an ‘interesting’ idea rather than a wholeheartedly good one, is that I’m not quite sure what difference they will make as a non-statutory set of standards. 

In and of themselves I would suggest that they won’t make a great difference, at least at a systemic level, but if the DfE empowers the working group or another group (perhaps the College of Teaching, but perhaps not) to add some more layers of self-evaluation tools, quality assurance processes and perhaps even a kitemarking mechanism then they may become more than fine words on a page. Most importantly of all, there needs to be something that gets external providers of CPD for schools and teachers to buy into the standards and (cliche alert) set the bar high for in-school training. 

Related to this, and perhaps an attempt to meet the needs of possibly the poorest trained groups, is the ‘expectation’ of better training and induction for Governors (our Chair of Govs let me know tonight that he’d read chapter one of this series, so this one’s for him!). I hope that the standards include a clear reference to Governors because, in the forthcoming MAT era, the development needs of these amazing people, who take on huge responsibility for no financial reward, is crucial. But the word ‘expectation’ is a little jarring because it falls well short of the high water mark of assurance. Time will tell, but I suspect that it will still be down to individual GBs to meet their own standards. 

One more area of CPD focus interest me in this White Paper: the ‘Excellence in Leadership’ fund. The time is certainly right to stop and take a long hard look at the nature and focus of school leadership. I’m not holding my breath, though, that this fund will do that. Too often in this White Paper there is reference to “great”, “leading” and even “top” leaders and Headteachers to give me confidence that we are genuinely being reflective about the task we face in rebuilding credibility and trust in school leadership at a time when finances, recruitment and reorganisation need us, more than ever, to do so. Instead, I sadly suspect, we are about to re-embark on a voyage into Hero Headship and Super CEOship that is self-congratulatory and self-perpetuating. Heaven help us all if that is the case. 

There is a lot of mood music in EEE about the importance of research. Most notably the rather striking, slightly odd (for a White Paper) and potentially zeitgeist-surfing reference to the creation of a new peer-reviewed education journal that will be written, I presume, for teachers rather than academics. It sounds good. I’ll be interested to see if, under the control of the CoT, it is only available to members of that organisation. Equally, I’m interested in seeing whether it includes research by both academics and teachers or by one or other of these groups. There is a lot to like in this proposal but also a lot of details to be worked through. 

There is also a section of the White Paper that says there will be “incentives” for schools to publish their own research findings and CPD materials in an “open-source” format. Each time I look over this I can’t help thinking that a truly open-source commitment to sharing materials is one that neither seeks nor accepts incentives. Surely, as publicly-funded organisations, schools should be absolutely bound (legally, but more importantly, morally) to the free sharing of resources and materials?  But the government has form in this area in the licensing of the old NPQ programmes to any provider happy to charge for their intellectual capital (not to mention the intellectual capital they bought from the NCTL). Indeed, within the White Paper itself there is a proposal that a new set of NPQ programmes will be licensed – about which I will say more in the next chapter on ‘nonsensical ideas’. 

A final, and very welcome, interesting idea with regard to evidence-based teaching, is the decision to widen the remit of the Education Endowment Fund. Twice within the last two years our Teaching School Alliance has submitted what I consider to be beautiful bids to the EEF that were not endowed with funds largely because they didn’t hit the extremely narrow focus of directly raising the attainment of disadvantaged students in order to “close the gap”. Instead, both focused on focused CPD that would initially have impact upon the capability of teachers, the achievement of all students and, by and only by extension, the achievement of disadvantaged children. 

From now on, if the White Paper fulfils its aims, the EEF will be funding projects for post-16 achievement, evidence-based teaching and character education. So the remit widens but only insofar as the research projects reflect the existing priorities of the government. Good, but definitely not outstanding practice. The EEF is potentially a great force for good in education, but if it’s relatively vast coffers are only to be opened to DfE-sanctioned projects then it will continue to miss out on genuinely paradigm-shifting research opportunities that tell us what we didn’t know we wanted or needed. I sincerely hope that one day the EEF can be given control of the broader areas of remit, not merely the decisions about which projects best meet the remit selected for them. 

My final selection of an ‘interesting idea’ from this White Paper is one that is not about CPD or research, but one that is also linked to what happens in our classrooms. It has flown under the radars of most commentators, probably because it promises little more than a “focus” (which is not much more than a vague hope) rather than anything substantive. This focus is upon part-time and job-share recruitment. Our TSA has already secured some funding to put together a part-time School Direct programme, but my interest in this is not merely self-serving. Although part-time and job-share appointments are sometimes difficult for employing organisations, they offer some huge benefits not least of which is the more authentic connection with our communities, the commitment to gender equality and a real ‘walking the talk’ with regard to putting the child at the centre (not just the Y11 borderline English or Maths child). To take this challenge on, as a focus for our individual institutions, not only makes sense in the eye of the perfect recruitment storm. It also makes sense when the waters are calmer. I hope that it genuinely does become a “focus” for the DfE. 

So there you have it, my take on the ‘interesting ideas’ within the White Paper. In the next and final post in the series I’ll be giving my two pennorth with regard to the ‘nonsensical’ ones, with the spoiler alert that anyone who still thinks that the DfE can pull off a major ICT project might well find themselves disappointed in my views. 

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