Headmaster's Blog

An education manifesto

The General Election may still be three months off but our politicians are already deeply engaged in their campaigning for it.

When it comes to education policy I have long argued for a ‘bottom-up’ approach to change led by educators, not politicians. So, true to that conviction, here are my six manifesto suggestions for continuing the steady improvement that I am convinced we have seen in education over the twenty years that I have spent leading schools.  

Quality criteria. So much of the political discourse on education focuses on the concept of quality but what is meant by the word? Successive governments have honed in on academic achievement as the element of teaching and learning that’s easy to measure, tabulate and analyse. But I’d like to see criteria like understanding, confidence and creativity in the mix. We’re not training young people for the factory production line where they need a fixed set of repeatable skills but rather for a dynamic workplace where they will need to make impromptu decisions in previously unforeseen situations. 

Assessment. The current disabling anxiety about national assessment, particularly at GCSE, completely misses the point that the national benchmark now needs to be set at age 18, not 16. This is the effective leaving age for formal education anyway and, at present, we waste half a year’s learning just preparing for exams in Year 11. Schools can and should assess at age 16 but it does not need to be a national qualification which has little value or meaning for employers or universities.

Inspection. I do believe in the need for effective inspection but OFSTED has become an unhelpfully blunt ‘stick’ with which to beat schools, dominated at it is by faceless compliance and box-ticking rather than constructive dialogue during the course of the inspection itself. The unofficial mantra of the old HMI – ‘Do good as you go’ – would not be a bad model to which to return.

Long term view. The pace of change currently expected in schools is too rapid and cannot be met. We need an end to the year-on-year shifting of goalposts and a more considered, measured approach to change which does not expect results next week.  

Let teachers teach. Politicians no longer set the country’s interest rates; this is left to the expert practitioners of the Bank of England. We need a similar division in education, recognising a role for ministers in setting long term strategic goals but for teachers in fronting up the change required to meet them.

One education. Continual highlighting of the differences between schools in the state and independent sectors is, at best, unconstructive and, at worst, just cheap point-scoring. Schools of all types can and do well work well together and it is not helpful to point to their differences rather than their successful collaboration. 

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School