What did you learn about the education system in your role as schools minister between 2006-09?
When Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair asked me to do the job, my school experience was as a pupil in the private sector, as a parent of kids in local schools and someone who had once been a secondary school governor of a comprehensive. And that really didn’t amount to that much. So I had to quickly learn how the system works. It’s a broad spread of responsibilities that the post holder has in terms of everything to do with teachers, their recruitment, their training, their pay, and so on and so forth. Then there’s the curriculum, how that works, what’s expected of it, the development of school leadership and school buildings. There’s a lot to get your head around.
So, first and foremost, in that time I learned how the system works. And while there have been changes since, they’ve not been that significant in terms of the general wiring of the system.
Did you enjoy the role?
I loved it. And, with the exception of a year that I spent as employment minister in 2010, I have devoted my working time to education ever since. I think it’s partly because there aren’t any easy answers. It’s a profoundly human endeavour and there is all the diversity of humanity that you’re bringing to bear to try and develop the talents and the prospects of young people through education. There just isn’t a right and wrong answer for everybody and that makes it endlessly fascinating and endlessly motivating, because the core business of education is something that we should, and broadly do, buy into to create a future for our young people.
During these difficult COVID times what should schools be focusing on?
My perception is that very many heads are having to focus on practical things such as how you keep a safe regime in place to safeguard the health of staff and pupils.
Obviously, schools have to spend a lot of money on mitigating some of the health risks, so they’re also worried about budgets.
But all of that is pushing teaching and learning down the down the list because all of these things are immediate. They’re getting guidance at the last minute and having to decide whether or not this means you have to do it or you ought to do it, and how much can they determine their own rules? I think it is really important for primary heads to connect with why they want to be there, which is all about teaching and learning. This will start with the wellbeing of yourself as a leader, to make sure you’re able to lead, and the wellbeing of your staff. It’s about creating a safe and healthy environment for the kids so that they can learn. And you can’t lose sight of having the contingency plans around continuing to learn. But first and foremost, think about the learning because that’s why you’re there.
What would you like to change in primary education?
I look back on my time and I don’t think I challenged the orthodoxy of testing enough. I was responsible for getting rid of key stage three SATS. But I am of a strong view that we over test our children, that we’re in danger of creating, in some schools, quite a sterile Year 6 because it’s just too dominated by prep for the SATS and for those few subjects that are being tested in that context. I would want us to trust teachers more, trust their professionalism more. Also carry through more of the learning culture of early years and primary and not drag down the learning culture of secondary into primary. Have more love, more trust, more professionalism and less testing. Also, less of the high stakes accountability that makes school leaders understandably risk averse. It’s career threatening if your risk goes wrong, but we need to continue to take risk and innovate.
And finally, I think we need to pay more attention to the home/school relationship. One of my reflections of the last few months has been that it has changed the way most schools are connecting with parents. The parents had to take on some of the role of teachers during lockdown and they found that difficult. They are very happy to see kids going back to school. But they have gotten closer to their children as learners. And they are, potentially, a much stronger ally for teachers than previously and we should really build on that.
What role will technology have to play in the future of primary education?
We need to ensure that everyone has access to a decent connection with a decent device at home, regardless of income, so that they can be included. That way teachers can take advantage of the technology for things like flipped learning. So then homework is something you can think about completely differently, I think it is something that in Key Stage 2 there is a place for. And then there’s parents’ evening, will they continue in the same way? So many schools found that parents’ evenings on a digital platform worked really well, instead of everyone traipsing in and sitting on tiny chairs around low tables looking at portfolios of work. It was more convenient for everyone concerned. There’ll probably be a blend because parents may still want to see some of the work that’s been done on paper. But things like that are an opportunity to move away from annual reporting, to move to a more rolling system and really share in the endeavour of teaching kids. In turn, parents will be able to share how the kids are in terms of their wider wellbeing, which I also think most teaching professionals are taking more seriously than ever before.
Do you have a message for school leadership for the year ahead?
Be brave enough to lead. Don’t be tied up by all the guidance. Pay due regard to it in terms of safety and mitigating risk, but lead, don’t wait to be led. You are school leaders, lead teaching and learning in your school almost regardless of all the nonsense that’s coming out of Whitehall.