Schools are going to have to pay for a lot of support, training and consultancy they currently receive ‘for free’ from local authorities. If they want such services in the future, the only way they will get them is by paying less for teachers, teaching assistants and materials.
The Chancellor’s announcement on Tuesday that there would be little change in the total budget for schools was greeted with relief by many. In reality, as commentators have already observed, much sporting, cultural and community activities that make schools exciting places to be will disappear because it was funded by other, less fortunate, departments.
Also, schools are going to have to pay for a lot of support, training and consultancy they currently receive ‘for free’ from local authorities. If they want such services in the future, the only way they will get them is by paying less for teachers, teaching assistants and materials.
Some will say this last is a good thing. Schools have been overwhelmed with advice and guidance on initiatives over the past 13 years. Turning off the supply will be an opportunity for them to work out for themselves what will help children and young people to achieve their potential.
This overlooks the likely impact of ministers’ bullishness about academic results. They talk about ‘trusting’ teachers and giving ‘freedom’ to schools, but at the same time they are clear they will have little patience for experimentation if results start to slip. In that circumstance, schools will be expected to adopt teaching techniques that are ‘tried and tested’. Without support, only a brave headteacher working in such a climate will work out a creative route to addressing the needs of challenging children.
‘Freeing schools; shaping the big society’, a report published by the charity Antidote on Tuesday, tries to find a way through the dilemma that faces schools in challenging circumstances, which are unable to meet the needs of their students because the pressure to ‘achieve’ deprives them of the licence to experiment and explore.
Arguing from its experience of working with 58 schools, Antidote says that reliance on the ‘tried and tested’ cannot work. Just because researchers have shown that an approach is effective with, say, 90 per cent of students, doesn’t mean it will be of any use in a particular context. Instead, schools need to draw on the insights of staff and students about what is happening that needs to change, and then to develop their creative ideas for bringing change about.
According to Antidote’s analysis, the government is right to argue that there is a link between freedom and excellence, but wrong to suggest that those who need more freedom are parents or headteachers. Ultimately, it is students who know what will enable them to learn even better, and teachers who are best placed to turn students’ insights into successful strategies in the classroom.
The main obstacle to recognising this simple truth is a mistrust of teachers that runs like a seamless thread through the culture. It is assumed either that they will do anything for an easy life, or that they are motivated only by extreme left-wing ideology. Also, the idea that disaffected students hold the key to their becoming engaged in learning is one that those who do not work closely with them find hard to accept.
Antidote’s report describes how it achieves this impact through a carefully-structured process for ensuring that all voices are heard, not just the loud ones, and that all perspectives are taken into account in developing a strategy for the school.
The report argues that this level of openness contains a powerful message for those seeking to create either a ‘Big Society’ or a ‘Good Society’. Only when everyone has a voice can an organisation or community really become sufficiently intelligent about itself to do the things that address the key issues, and ensure those things have sufficient buy-in to be effectively implemented.
It is by enabling even the most cynical and disaffected to discover that they have a voice which can be heard, that their experience can resonate with others and that they can change their own lives by working with others to change theirs, that the sort of process described in the report can help to close the achievement gap in schools and to shape the sort of society most of us want to live in.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.