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Once more around the maypole

02 June 2017

Lasting changes in education are not made by politicians, but by strong and effective leaders, says David Bell


A need for lasting change: Sir David Bell in 2002, when he was the Government’s Chief Inspector of Schools

A need for lasting change: Sir David Bell in 2002, when he was the Government’s Chief Inspector of Schools

IT IS only two years since the last General Election. Yet, viewed from the spring of 2017, it seems like a different age. Between then and now, the seismic shift represented by the Brexit vote has changed the landscape of UK politics for ever.

But education is a constant; so should we be optimistic or pessi­mistic as the election approaches?

Party manifestos tend to focus on structural reforms in education. Day-to-day implementation never appeals to politicians in the same way as introducing new legislation, or “reforming” the system. Yet most people are more interested in how we get the fundamentals right in the classroom.

Genuine reforms do not fit into five-year (or shorter) electoral cycles. And what feels like a pro­found change in the short term may be merely a footnote in the long run.

One of the greatest miscon­ceptions in government is that sheer force of personality, or a small group of individuals in Whitehall, can address every issue and sort out every problem in more than 20,000 state schools. Worse is the conceit that little more is necessary than passing a new law, or making an an­­nouncement in the press.

Lasting change will come only if our schools have effective leaders, with strong values, an unflinching commitment to high achievement, and the resilience to cope when times are tough. And great teachers. Crucially, too, leaders need freedom to act in the best interests of their pupils, without the constant worry that they will have to change direc­tion every year.

To strengthen the capacity of school leaders, the Church of Eng­land’s Foundation for Edu­cational Leadership is an important initiative in promoting more imaginative, innovative leadership development. It meets a need for professional development for leaders at all levels. It also cultivates a better under­standing of the demands and opportunities in leading schools with a Christian foundation.

We are fortunate still that so many people — in church schools and beyond — see teaching not only as an honourable professional calling but also as a vocation. Indeed, we cannot thank our teachers enough for what they do in educating the next generation of citizens.

Depth of knowledge, consistency of approach, regular feedback, and high ambition for pupils to succeed — these are among the basics of great teaching. In addition, our teachers often model integrity and maturity, as well as inculcate in­­valuable knowledge and skills.

Governments of all persuasions would do well to see teachers as the solution, and not the problem. That involves trusting them more and not seeking to micro-manage everything they do. Yet the talk is often of in­­spection, league tables, and how they condition behaviour.

It is, perhaps, easier said than done, but school leaders and teachers need to have confidence in what they do, and have the evidence to hand to show what works. If they have, they should welcome full trans­­parency and sharp account-ability.

And do not forget strong governing bodies, which are the backbone of effective schools. They are clear about their purpose: to set strategic direction and hold the management to account. They have the right mix of skills and know­ledge to both support and challenge the school leaders. They ask the tough questions; and they focus on the big issues.

School governors, including those who give great service to church schools, have been a volunteer com-munity army. Around the country, many thousands of people give their time and effort to support schools in their locality. While it may no longer be fashionable to talk about the Big Society, if you are still inclined to do so, school governors epitomise it.

So, back to the opening question: optimism or pessimism?

Well, challenges remain, and some might think that they abound. Funding pressures, further reform to examinations, and uncertainties surrounding academy trusts and local academies are just some of the issues that will require attention in the months and years ahead.

But, more than ever, our country needs to realise the Church of England’s vision for education that enables every person to flourish in the widest sense. That is a clarion call for a broad-based, rich curricu­lum that puts spiritual and emo­tional well-being on the same plane as intellectual and cultural develop­ment.

Educators are on the side of hope. They believe that children and young people can learn and im­­prove, irrespective of who they are and where they come from. It is called having faith in the future. Who knows, it might even appeal to politicians.


Sir David Bell is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, and a former Permanent Secretary for the Department for Education. Before that, he was Chief Inspector of Schools in England.

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