The Secret Teacher: let’s free education from political control
Suffering from innovation fatigue and tired of the constant top-down trickle of instructions for what to do next? Well Secret Teacher is too – but they have a solution in mind
The only constant is constant change. Are you sick of department heads coming back from training sessions with new ideas and ‘innovations’ for your school? Photograph: http://www.alamy.com
The only constant is constant change. Teachers beyond a certain age develop a condition known as innovation fatigue. I’ve witnessed it many times; scores of teachers at some local authority launch exchanging glances, gently shaking their heads. The process begins with a department head attending some hotel training horror show at which they’re provided with shiny booklets explaining “what everyone needs to start doing next”. This is typically a new assessment framework presented in the form of pages and pages of grids. There’s never an author to these documents, just the logo of whatever they’ve decided to call the education department that year.
So then our hapless hero gets a slot at the next department meeting to explain “what everyone needs to start doing next”. Anyone who objects is understandably seen as being unhelpful, and told to suck it up so everyone can go home. And on it goes. It’s a hopelessly inefficient top down trickle of ever changing info-treacle, and it never, ever stops.
I’m not saying no-one should man the tiller. I’m merely asking – what credentials have Michael Gove or Stephen Twigg to run an education system? What evidence is there that politicians are better suited to the job than somebody with relevant experience and qualifications, a headteacher say, or a professor? Politicians can’t be blamed for tinkering; the levers are within their reach. But the short-term nature of electoral politics blights meaningful progress, endlessly rewriting the script and tearing up at least as many good ideas as are set in place. So let’s move the levers beyond their reach.
In their 2010 manifesto, the Lib Dems had a policy to pass an Education Freedom Act. Characteristically thin on detail, it promised to “prevent politicians from meddling in the affairs of education”. A noble aim, but it begs the question: how would it work?
Well, how about this: with a teaching qualification comes the right to vote for the, not education secretary, let’s call it head of the profession for now. These voting rights could be extended to others with relevant credentials – academics, high level teaching assistants, whoever. Every five years there’s a series of elections, carried out in schools, to decide who’s going to be head of the profession for the next five years. There could be one election a month over four months, starting with choosing a school representative, then at the local authority level, then at the regional level, and finally at the national level. That person can serve two terms in public office if they get re-elected – having the opportunity to set in place a 10-year plan – and then they must return to the profession, or move on.
A common criticism is that it wouldn’t be fair to people who aren’t teachers, because you’re denying them a vote on something that affects them. But we don’t get to choose the education secretary now, do we? We vote for our local constituency MP, and the secretaries of state are appointed from the political elite. So this idea extends the democratic model to make it so that people who know what they’re talking about, can choose from a list of people who know what they’re talking about, based on ideas discussed and debated in any number of forums.
The main problem with this idea, as far as I can see, is that it doesn’t stop with education. By empowering the professions to elect their own leaders, we would have healthcare professionals running the NHS, economists running the economy, engineers running transport systems and so on, with politicians holding them all to account. How’s that for a ‘big society’?
This week’s Secret Teacher works in an academy in the south of England.