The Headteacher: Education system heading towards chaos

Steve Woodhouse is the executive headteacher of Bishop Wilton 'CE Primary School
Steve Woodhouse is the executive headteacher of Bishop Wilton 'CE Primary School

One of the most enjoyable periods of my education career came when I worked for the local authority. I spent two years in North East Lincolnshire, supporting local teachers and having a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of young people. There is no wonder I feel such a deep sadness as local authorities across the country simply disappear.

As regular readers of my column will know, I like to share my opinions on the educational landscape, hopefully helping those who aren’t involved in education to see a little more of what goes on in the world of schools. Unfortunately, over the past couple of months, purdah has removed that freedom of speech.

Purdah, a word of Persian origin, means ‘curtain’. It’s a word that we hear a lot of every four years or so in the UK, as it refers to the pre-election period; specifically the time between the election announcement and results.

The purdah period regulates the conduct of public bodies (including the Department for Education) in the weeks before an election.

Headteachers and school staff are not allowed to be involved in any activity that promotes or is perceived to promote a political party or candidate, including endorsing a politician verbally or in writing, being involved in photo opportunities and organising events that could give others platforms for political comment. Basically you keep quiet and keep your opinions to yourself! So, why are local authorities disappearing and what impact will that have? I’ll tell you, now that I can...

Over the past fortnight, the news has been full of threats towards what the Government call ‘coasting schools’. The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan (who, incidentally, still hasn’t replied to my invitation) wants to remove headteachers from schools which ‘require improvement’. She will replace the Head with a so called ‘Superhead’, although no one seems to know where these miracle workers are. Perhaps they will wear their pants on the outside of their suits to help us identify them.

Ms Morgan has a challenge on her hands; I have three schools and only one is ‘requires improvement’ – perhaps I will get sacked from one and keep the others? According to the Government, the best way to ‘turn a school round’ is to turn it into an academy under new leadership.

The Government is desperate to create more academies and free schools, it is the only way they can wipe out the local authority (LA). Academies and free schools are funded directly from central Government, meaning a cut in funding for the LA. Without the money, the LA starts to struggle and the wealth of support it offers simply disappears.

I find the support on offer from the East Riding LA to be invaluable. They visit regularly to observe teachers, scrutinise children’s work, monitor marking, support with assessment, help with interviews, provide training for Governors, the list goes on and on. They provide training for teachers on new initiatives and support newly qualified members of the profession in their first year. The work of these visiting professionals centres around improving the outcomes for children and we are very lucky in the East Riding to still have them.

There is no evidence to suggest that academies and free schools perform any better than their LA equivalent schools, in fact the true figures are quite the opposite. According to Miles Berry, lecturer at Roehampton University, LA schools outperformed academies in 2014 for both attainment and progress. Not a statistic that was mentioned in the election campaign.

Miles points out that it isn’t all about data though and suggests that ‘perhaps the proportion of pupils going on to live happy, fulfilled and purposeful lives would be better still.’ I couldn’t agree more.

I genuinely believe that our national education system is in a mess. I have spoken to many Headteachers over the past couple of weeks who are worried about their jobs and the future in general. Some are thinking of leaving the profession because of the continuous political interference. Others are reluctant to apply for roles in schools that ‘require improvement’ for fear of losing their job at the next inspection. Many colleagues refuse to work for academy chains for fear of losing their identity, feeling as though they are being taken over by a large corporate body.

The academy agenda won’t go away. Schools in this area will undoubtedly be affected over the coming years as the LA gradually disappears.

Schools who ‘require improvement’ will have no-one to turn to and will be swallowed up by larger organisations who dictate everything from curriculum to uniform. It’s happening all over the country; Headteachers are here one day and gone the next.

Many of our schools are at crisis point under growing pressure. In my opinion, our country’s education system and its schools are approaching unprecedented chaos; I doubt that’s what the Government will say though, it’ll all be hidden behind the curtain.