The government has lost its footing on education policy – but the profession can’t afford to blink now.
I have recently been reading Bernard Cornwell’s excellent “Last Kingdom” chronicles, which inspired the BBC TV adaptation last year. These books tell the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fictional Saxon warrior raised among Danes whose life is punctuated by battles usually fought, as early medieval battles often were, in the “Shield Wall.” In these encounters, the front row of each group of warriors would lock their shields together in an overlapping formation and push as hard as they could against the wall of similarly arranged enemy shields, thrusting and slashing at their opponents above and below the shields with swords and spears whenever they saw an opportunity to do so.
The Shield-Wall is a helpful metaphor for understanding how it has felt to be involved in the teaching profession’s struggle of attrition against the government in recent years. Until very, very recently, it has felt as though our line of increasingly scratched and dented shields had only ever been pushed backwards, unable to withhold the onslaught of a larger and more powerful enemy. Every now and then one of the elite warriors in our front row would fall to the axe-blow of a damning Ofsted report or the sword-thrust of a disappointing set of test results and fall out of the fight altogether, to be replaced by a less-seasoned warrior from the rows behind. And in all of this we knew only defeat.
A few weeks ago I wrote this post about the changing mood in the country around the education debate. All of a sudden, a wider range of people (including some within the Conservative Party itself) have started to voice their concerns about the direction of travel the government is following in its approach to school reform. Yesterday they announced their biggest climb-down since coming to power in 2010 by appearing to U-turn completely on plans to force all schools in England to become academies. For one moment, it seems, the enemy Shield-Wall has lost its balance and been forced to take a step back.
The temptation now is to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the moment of respite this offers us but I strongly believe that to be the very opposite of what we should be doing. Now is the time to charge forwards. The government will regroup and they will plough on with their agenda exactly as they were doing before the budget: using increasingly opaque accountability measures based on spurious test data to pick schools off one at a time as they deem them to be “coasting.” As school budgets are brutally slashed (and, to be clear, that is exactly what is happening in London at least) evading this trap (for that is what it is) will become harder and harder. The academisation agenda is still alive and well.
So we must resist the temptation to stand by and enjoy the government’s stumble. Basking in their humiliation will only give them time to regroup. Instead we must charge forward and exploit this moment of weakness- break their lines and outflank them on all the issues where a growing number of parents, journalists and local councillors are only now waking up to our concerns, especially over the primary assessment fiasco, school budget reductions and the abolition of Qualified Teacher Status.
So I won’t be celebrating the government’s U-turn on academies. The fight goes on and there is still so much we need to defend our schools against. But maybe, just maybe, we will one day look back at this moment, when the enemy stumbled just for a moment and their Shield-Wall took one step back, as the moment when the tide of the battle started to change in our favour.