System change: freedom or free for all?

Dr. Sue Robinson

“There is a well known phrase ‘honour the flaw finders’ which I think is worth considering in the current educational climate. They are not always a destructive force. Managed appropriately those who see flaws in our ideas or systems can be used to improve them or to offset unintended consequences.”

I’ve been happy to live by this maxim as a headteacher because I know that if mistakes are made the staff will let me know. It is an important leadership strategy not only to build the ownership and empowerment of staff but also because our systems both local and national can improve by the ideas of the collective intelligence of the users. This is especially important at the beginning of a leadership journey when leaders are keen to make a start on change.

It is with this idea in mind that I suggest that we are losing the collective memory of those who work in the rapidly dismantling school system and with it the intelligence of what works and importantly why some things don’t.

How will the fragmentation in the system be managed? This is a question I posed at a meeting in the summer of 2010 and again in the autumn and so on since then. Nothing that has happened subsequently has made me lose my sense of unease.

I am concerned that data and knowledge of what is happening in the school system isn’t being gathered and used for the purposes of improvement. Local authorities have diminishing capacity, improvement partners don’t exist, many schools aren’t inspected and system’s intelligence is locked in the individual chains and federations with no expectation that it should be shared.

I accept many of these systems are of variable quality, but while they exist they can be improved. Without effective accountability and a clear communication link, neither the government, nor anyone else, will be able to determine quickly enough any flaws or failures in the system.

The inspection system is, and possibly inevitably will be flawed, because those who are inspectors will make mistakes and the data system is an imperfect mechanism by which to judge schools. However no longer inspecting outstanding schools is bizarre. How will the system know if these schools are still successful?

Merely looking at data and waiting for parents to become sufficiently aware to exercise parental choice and move their children (assuming there are places elsewhere) is hardly an acceptable way to run the education service. What happens to children’s education in the meantime? The judgement itself is based on so many different frameworks that it no longer a fair comparison of schools.

I am not ideologically opposed to having a diverse school structure system. I think it could work and believe in freedom of choice. However it is in danger of failing if we lose the intelligence that informs us of overall system progress. How will we know that various chains and federations are successful? Are they to be inspected as a whole? What, for example, will be the quality of the professional development or curriculum?

There is a vast difference between the micro - managed system of some aspects of the previous government and the dismantling and privatisation of the system of the current. There is somewhere in between the two extremes which works. But then I am a values led pragmatist and not an ideologue.

I know Tony Blair is alleged to have said that he wished he had pushed his agenda through more quickly. Perhaps remembering this comment, the government seems to be in a rush to change the system. However to do so without an understanding of the potential consequences is self -defeating.

There is a section in my forthcoming book entitled ‘Diversity, fragmentation and the role of the middle tier’ and I still believe almost a year after I wrote it, that these are amongst the most pressing issues to be considered today.

There are many very good ideas being introduced into the system such as teaching schools, the role of Specialist Leaders of Education and the continuance of the National Professional Qualification for Headship.

Nevertheless there are many flaw finders amongst the profession and I would ask government to consider their views. They are not wreckers but on your side, because like you, they are on the side of the children and young people of this country. First published

Twitter @suerobinson2

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