FULL TEXT OF ORIGINAL OPEN LETTER TO GUARDIAN
Progressive Education Network (a network of head teachers and educators) has the interests of all young people at heart and wants to be a steady voice of education during this election. There are too many shrill voices calling for a ‘year zero’ approach that refuses to recognise the progress that has already been made by government, schools and parents working together. We want to build on the investment of recent years and ensure that front line funding and commitment is not put at risk. We know that there is much still to do to make our system as good as it needs to be for the increasing demands of this century. So, we ask, will all major parties commit to ring fencing and increasing front line education spending as the present government has done?
It was so disappointing to see the rush from consensus between the major parties in the last hours of the Education Bill last week. Months of painstaking consultation and discussion were thrown away in order to emphasise political divisions. Abandoned literally at the last minute was a guarantee surrounding one to one tuition for youngsters falling behind and also a strengthened commitment to high quality sex and health education. Will all major parties commit to the immediate reinstatement of this in a new parliament? And if so, what was the purpose of such game playing in the first place?
Progressive Education Network believes in access for all children, high quality provision for all children and the delivery of good outcomes for all children. It sees education, therefore, as a public service not as a commodity. It accepts the need for diversity and variety of provision and some of our new providers have made the greatest strides in improving the life chances of children. We welcome the fact that under current legislation it is already possible for new providers and parents’ groups to set up new schools. But we have serious doubts about the proposed artificial creation of expensive surplus places to construct a market to support ‘free schools’. And to take one aspect of another nation’s system out of context (such as the Swedish free school model or the American charter school) and propose it as a systemic solution is naive educational tourism at its least convincing. A recent Progressive Education Network seminar led by Professor Dylan Wiliam illustrated the danger of lifting features from elsewhere in an undigested form. Recent research shows that only one sixth of American charter schools are making a measurable difference and that in Sweden children from state schools and free schools perform at identical levels in their first year at university. Structural tinkering at the edges for the few in a system that needs success for all brought about by consistent high quality teaching does not reform that system. A sprinkling of ‘flat pack schools’ is not the answer especially if they reduce available funding for the rest of the system.
Instead we are already part of an exciting educational landscape that is evolving into a powerful coalition of educators, families and government. We have a generation of front line leaders and teachers with much to offer the education system as well as their own individual schools; a group of professionals who cooperate as a matter of course and who are motivated by a vision beyond their immediate school boundary. The potential of locally driven collaborative trusts, groups of schools, executive headships that span several institutions and efficient business models for groups of schools, answerable locally and nationally, are only just beginning to be appreciated; these hugely promising approaches coupled with serious investment in early year’s provision must be developed further and not sidelined for yet another structural overhaul.
Finally, experienced head teachers remember all too well long and sustained periods in the 1980s and 1990s of chronic underinvestment in schools and education. We have thrown away our buckets and pails that were used to catch the rainwater pouring through leaking roofs and rotten window frames throughout the entire country. In the 21st century and in a global economy we cannot and must not short change future generations in such a way again.
The current generation of school leaders and the quality of new entrants to the profession is judged by Ofsted to be better than ever. Much done, but much still to do. Make sure we have the tools to finish the job and do not return us to ‘year zero’.
We believe that the general thrust and direction of the present system will allow us to build on where we are and not start yet again from scratch. Let us continue to steer education carefully and professionally as we are doing now.