‘Political interference in education has got to stop’

The Telegraph, 27/04/15, decisions in education should be made on the basis of hard-won experience in the classroom, not ideology from above, says Richard Harman, Chairman of HMC and headmaster of Uppingham School.

Politicians, we are told, campaign in poetry but govern in prose. So far - and here’s a challenge to Boris perhaps - I haven’t noticed many sonnets or haikus on offer in this election.

Nevertheless it’s perhaps encouraging to see some similar themes emerging under the heading of education.

Leaving aside whether it’s a good in itself (and I believe it is), all parties seem to agree that education is a key driver of economic success and social mobility. This is why it is crucial that, however prosaic, the government that emerges after May 7 preserves what is most successful in our schools, reverses the politicisation of the education system and encourages productive partnerships between state and independent schools. We all want to bring the best education to every child.

On the whole, our politicians seem to understand that independent schools have a great deal to offer when it comes to educational opportunity. But there remains an implication that we are not pulling our weight in educational reform and “must try harder”.

However, 90 per cent of independent schools are already involved in partnerships with state schools and the sector contributes £9.5 billion to the economy every year, as well as saving the nation enough money every year to fund 460 new free schools. So we have experience to offer and legitimacy when it comes to commenting on policy.

Labour, for example, is right to emphasise the value of local schools working together to improve the quality of education. In a recent cross-party debate on making education fair for all, Tristram Hunt said he wanted the relationship between state and independent schools to be characterised by “collaboration, partnership, support and challenge”. So do we.

HMC schools already sponsor and partner with academies and other maintained schools, offer full and partial bursaries and help with university applications, sports and STEM subjects. The door is open and there is much quietly happening in the space beyond. But Labour’s solution – legislating for withdrawal of business rate relief from independent schools unless they form “meaningful partnerships” – is in danger of not working.

It’s clear that, in common with all meaningful partnerships, school linking will be successful only with sensible facilitation and good will on both sides. The approach of HMC schools has always been to learn from each other, and from others, to innovate and foster the approaches that work best.

So a more fruitful approach would be to identify the best projects, help roll them out, and invest time and small amounts of funding in bringing partner schools together.

Forcing them through a process is highly likely to backfire, stunting relationships with state schools who may have no wish or need to participate.

All political parties also want to drive up standards. The question is how. HMC Heads know from experience that independence is key to great teaching and learning. For this reason we are convinced that governments of all colours should resist micro-managing schools.

Let Heads make decisions appropriate to their schools and, certainly, let teachers teach rather than disappear under a pile of paperwork and box-ticking target-driven exercises.

Their judgments are made on the basis of hard-won experience and what demonstrably works on the ground, not ideology from above.

Manifesto season is a time for setting out stalls decorated with attractive election promises. But the most useful thing any incoming government could do would be to resist making any more major changes to the design of qualifications until the current reforms have been seen through and evaluated.

By contrast, improving the quality of exam marking must be a priority and is in the interests of every pupil and parent in the UK. We would have liked to see this as a key promise across the manifestos, given the shocking number of re-grades published each autumn.

What of teacher training? The current system has undoubtedly created the worst framework for teacher supply that anyone can remember. There is an urgent need for routes into teaching that are more understandable and accessible. There is a real and present crisis in teacher supply in some core subjects.

So far the debate has centred on whether all teachers should have qualified teacher status. However, the much more important issue is how to bring more high-achieving graduates into the profession in the first place.

The biggest service any incoming administration could do would be to take a big breath, listen to the profession and refrain from interference and tinkering. Then there are a number of practical steps that could help improve the system for all.

De-politicising education would be very welcome, if a way can be found to do that. Allow recent changes to qualifications to bed in. More facilitation for independent/ state school partnerships must be a good idea. Make entry to the profession much more accessible to good graduates and then leave teaching to the teachers and leadership to school leaders.

And finally, whilst the Green Party wishes to do away with the independent sector, it would be interesting to know how they will find the £3 billion that independent schools save the UK budget every year, find jobs for the 227,000 staff we employ and replace the leadership we provide for all pupils in joint areas of interest such as exam marking, league tables and curriculum change.

If the answers could be supplied in poem form, so much the better. It doesn’t have to rhyme.

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