The Hunt for a better Education!

Education is not for the faint hearted, decisions are all too often made for us and new initiatives are driven by ideology or some would say stupidity.

Last year David and I (@thought_weavers) were fortunate enough to be invited to the DfE for a meeting with Elizabeth Truss and her policy advisors to discuss the new curriculum. We were also joined by a fantastic bunch of bloggers and together we debated the introduction of the new curriculum. I think it’s fair to say we came away from that meeting utterly bemused.

In the Summer of 2014 the group met with Michael Cladingbowl, the director for inspection reform at Ofsted – a very down to earth and honest character with a vision for Ofsted far removed from the opinions formed up and down the corridors in schools. We felt this was a more successful meeting and many of the new reforms and forthcoming changes have been inspired by Michael’s vision.

Today (9th January 2015) the group reformed and went to talk to Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary. Along with @imaginenquiry, @debrakidd and @cherrylkd I went to his constituency office in Stoke-on-Trent. I was brought up in the Potteries and in the past 40 years I have witnessed the dismantling of this once proud, hardworking, industrial heartland. There are no glass fronted buildings for Tristram Hunt, instead he steps right from the door of his constituency office right into the heart of the ‘real’ Stoke on a Trent of which I love and immensely proud to be part of.

On arrival we were welcomed by Tristram and he offered a cup of tea (but no biscuits!!!!) we went upstairs and sat around a small table in a small meeting (a far cry for the grandeur of the DfE) and the meeting began.

Without a set agenda the conversation was fluid and many aspects of education were discussed.

A key issue that soon arose (in our initial discussions) was that teachers were often leaving the profession for different careers and this was a particularly concern of mine. Tristram contended that in the modern workplace, few people went into a careers thinking it was a job for life, instead many of the chose to explore different avenues along the way; the group felt this was a fair point, but when teachers left the profession because of the weight of paperwork, data chasing and stress this was unacceptable – to this Tristram agreed.

We then soon got on to what we came to hear – what is Tristram Hunt’s vision for education? We asked him this question directly. Almost to my surprise he was very forthcoming with a clear and succinct answer. Tristram is adamant that education is the key to social justice and social mobility. He spoke passionately about pupils who were happy, enriched at school and were given opportunities to build character and he believes these aspects of education go hand in hand with academic success. Tristram sees education as the key to sustainable economic success in which a talented workforce can thrive. I was very surprised how easily his vision was articulated, this was certainly something in which he he deeply believed. Tristram was also open to the fact that all of his beliefs were linked to the core of the Labour movement. Whether we like it or not, education will always have an ideological influence but he made no attempt to hide it; he spoke with pride when referring to the Labour Movement.

Of course it’s great to have a sound philosophy of education but how was Tristram planning to make this a workable model of education?

His first priority is clearly early years – and by this I mean 0-5yrs. He wants to reinvigorate the SureStart program. This really excites me – I’ve always believed in this idea but I think it failed becuase no one really new why it existed – Tristram was clear; SureStart should be used to to tackle child poverty, a place where different agencies can work together, where parents can meet and learn for one another. In his own words Tristram wanted to ‘Reboot’ SureStart.

I gave the example of a breastfeeding support group held at a local community centre that was part run by my partner, which has recently closed; this group served as a haven for struggling parents, a chance to see how others interact with children and simply to make friends. As a father of a young bright three year old daughter I am only too aware of the benefits of these initiatives aimed at targeting and supporting young families. The sad irony of SureStart is that whilst the initiative was aimed at families on lower incomes, it was the middle classes that pounce on this opportunity. The challenge Tristram is to promote the value of SureStart to ALL families
Irrespective of their social status. The aim must be to create community ethos routed in learning and support.

Tristram then moved on to school policy. On one thing he was crystal clear; relentless structural reform is not the answer to raising standards. His belief is that the quality of teacher and the strength of leadership is the key to improvement. He stated that “all teachers should be qualified or working towards being qualified” and this was important to the profession as a whole. Tristram also believes that new careers paths that encourage the best teachers who don’t want to move into leadership and management should be available and believes the growth of federations would provide an opportunity for this.

One of my frustrations in education is that teachers don’t have time to think, they are overworked and have little time to reflect and improve; Tristram believes that teachers should have time to think and that well run schools do make this happen. He cited a school he’d visited recently where teachers had less contact time with pupils than is the norm and as a result standards has risen dramatically – he accepted that this was going to be a difficult idea to sell to parents but it was well worth it..

@debrakidd brought up the issue of the examination system. Tristram conceded that their are no hard and fast answers and that a perfect system is difficult to achieve. He did suggest that a number of assessment approaches should be used and mooted the idea of an ‘National Baccalaureate’ – a qualification that included English and Maths, learning outside the classroom and project based piece of work. He was clear that ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ should be of equal worth.

We spoke briefly about curriculum. Tristram made it clear that the new curriculum is here to stay; namely for the sake of stability and the he trusts teachers to do great things with it. He is passionate about a broad and balanced curriculum and agrees with the new Ofsted approach of ensuring this happens in school. I spoke about the pressure of sats and how this makes it difficult to offer a board and balanced curriculum in Y6. @imaginaryequiry pointed out that since writing became solely teacher assessed at Y6 education hasn’t imploded and surely this approach could be extended to reading and maths. Tristram seems genuinely intrigued by this idea.

I was open throughout the meeting that many teachers felt angry about the attitude of Michael Gove towards the profession and @cherrylkd asked Tristram what his approach to teachers will be, should he become the Education Secretary. Tristram was clear – his priority is children, not teachers – but – he was at pains to stress that a motivated and happy workforce is critical to this. He wants a “world class teacher in every classroom” that is support by an effective CPD framework. He also stressed that accountability is important, given the £51bn spent on education each year.

Tristram is no fool, he has a clear vision and is passionate about education. His ideas are very ‘idealistic’ and by his own admission, achieving them in time of tight financial constraints will be a huge challenge.

The meeting finished after around 80 minutes and we did our usual photo sessions and ‘chit chat.’ After the meeting we had a mini debrief in the local pub and all agreed – the meeting was very positive, it gave us hope.

The Hunt goes on!

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