What is needed next for our education system?

By Rob Williams

Robert will receive his award as 2020 Secondary Head Teacher of the Year tomorrow.  He has kindly taken the time to set out his thoughts on what our education system needs from the new Secretary of State.  Congratulations and thank you, Robert.

“As we say goodbye to one Secretary of State and welcome Mr Zahawi into the Department for Education it is time to take stock of our education system and identify some key priorities as next steps if we are to achieve the world-leading standards to which we aspire and which our young people deserve.

If education is really the mechanism to be the “great leveller” in terms of social equality within our society, then we can only say that we have stalled under successive governments to get close to such a lofty ideal. In part this is to do with levels of funding; in part with recruitment, retention and training of high-quality staff; in part with political disputes over organisational structures and curriculum priorities; and in part with our assessment systems and qualification framework. These are the areas that we would need to address to make a qualitative shift in the system as a whole and to better level up the life chances of all those hindered by disadvantage.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) have just published their blueprint to address this question: “A Great Education for Every Child: The ASCL Blueprint for a Fairer Education System”. This is an important and timely intervention and their General Secretary, Geoff Barton, will be presenting the Association’s case through fringe meetings at each of the Party Conferences this Autumn. Whilst there is much overlap between my own views and this recent ASCL paper, this is a personal take on the two key priorities that I believe must be addressed now.

Over the last 18 months I have campaigned that the media, and our political elite, should stop talking about our students as being a “lost generation”. This isn’t fair or accurate. It comes from an obsession with the current assessment and qualification framework that measures young people’s success by a small number of grades for academic subjects on a certificate. It is time for a root and branch re-evaluation of what we value in our young people and how we can best capture this as they move through the school system. I am not anti-exam, or even anti-A level, but I do believe that these elements should only form part of an overall leaving certificate that seeks to capture wider personal development, skills, knowledge and understanding – much as the Confederation of British Industry have been arguing in favour of for many years. This is a key plank of any meaningful reform and improvement of the system.

The use of 1:1 technology has to become embedded within the teaching and learning strategies of every school in the country. We are over a fifth of the way through the 21st century, yet the lockdown images of school staff driving round to students’ home addresses to deliver boxes of photocopied worksheets was reminiscent of 20th century solutions. It is not good enough. There has been a collective failure to establish a vision for the use of technology within education on a national scale and this would be my second main plea to Mr Zahawi. My school has developed the use of iPads within our teaching and learning approaches since 2012 and we became fully 1:1 in 2016. We have used Pupil Premium funding to support disadvantaged students to access the technology on an equal footing. The long-established nature of our practice allowed us to switch seamlessly to online learning at the start of the lockdown and continue with our curriculum delivery. All students deserve to have the best of modern technology incorporated within their learning programme and practice.”

Secondary Headteacher of the Year 2020  (Pearson National Teaching Awards)

Headteacher at Malton School, North Yorkshire, but writing in a personal capacity.