As I turned the calendar over to the first day of a new year—and a new decade—I couldn’t help but think back to 20 years ago when I was beginning what was to become a significant and formative period of my career, in school leadership. I was fortunate to have a forward-looking headteacher, doubly so because she included and encouraged all of her team to experiment, innovate, and become involved in a wide range of activities that were in equal part challenging and developmental.
In school we had a governors’ Vision 2020 group, linked to a Specialist Schools’ Trust steering group with the same name and aim: to try to look ahead at what schools might be like in 2020, and plan a route to take us there. Well here we are: we’ve arrived! The question is, does it look like the view we saw 20 years ago?
To respond to this question I turned back to a paper I was asked to write for Vision 2020’s first international online conference in 2001 (and in those days an online conference was itself fairly innovative). I was invited to write about developments in teacher recruitment and employment, and despite feeling I had little to offer in the way of knowledge or experience I nonetheless gave it a shot and put together this paper, which actually generated some pleasing discussion in the online forum.
So, were the words of my more youthful self in any way prophetic, or were they entirely chaff, to be blown away by the prevailing wind? When I look back I can see a mixture, as one might perhaps expect.
It wouldn’t have taken a genius to predict that:
“heavy handed governmental reform is likely to breed mistrust among the profession causing a downward spiral of lowering morale and increasing numbers leaving the profession.”
But in those early days of a listening New Labour government, we probably didn’t anticipate the Govian reforms to come, with the consequent effect on the attitudes and employment behaviours of at least some of the workforce—and that’s not to deny that there were some positive benefits too.
I can see in my 2001 words an optimism that may well have been born of naivety, but which, for a while, appeared to be somewhat justified: the curriculum did become more flexible, to include a wider range of applied or vocational provision, only for this growth to be terminated abruptly by dramatic changes to the accountability system (some of them much-needed, to be fair). Where once I’d longed for a way to properly recognise second-career teachers who had developed skills and knowledge in business and industry, this turned to anguish that some of the subjects they taught disappeared from the curriculum overnight.
My hope that schools would move on from reflecting a 19th century society certainly seems to have been misplaced: we have seen the wheel turn full circle, bringing us back to a narrower curriculum and an almost unquestioned emphasis on what some people delight in calling “traditional” teaching methods (I should say here that didactic teaching has its place, but my view has always been “horses for courses”: different subjects, skills and concepts require different teaching approaches).
At the time of writing the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP) offered a route into teaching that was different from the almost universal university-based route. What I didn’t predict was the plethora of routes into teaching that has grown since then. It is not clear that this has actually led to any more entrants to the profession, though it has certainly confused the offer for applicants.
Many of us will remember the “25 tasks” which teachers could no longer be asked to do, after a 2003 joint union workload agreement. I can perhaps claim some prescience in suggesting that exam offers need not be teachers, but the principle here, which has become part and parcel of most teachers’ working lives was an important one: teachers need to teach.
Comments about “tactical succession planning” showed less foresight, though having led several schools now I would say they are still important. To maintain consistently good experiences for pupils it is vital that the staff team is managed and led well, and this includes both performance management and development and promotion, either of which can lead to instability. The advent of MATs has probably enabled more efficient succession planning than was once the case, but it is not a universal practice.
Dramatic system change through the emergence and growth of academies, from the ground-breaking City Technology Colleges of the 1990s, was hailed as an opportunity to break free from the national teachers’ pay and conditions document. In fact, academies have not made huge changes to the way that teachers are employed, and much of the flexibility that we began to develop in the early 2000s (to accommodate complex and collaborative curriculum offers) has in fact disappeared.
When I look back to my paper of 2001, ill-informed and naïve as it was, two things strike me as positive, one by omission and one by its profundity:
- I didn’t expect technology to change everything. This is one bandwagon I’m glad I didn’t jump on: much of teaching and learning is at heart a relational experience and we shouldn’t be surprised that pedagogy was barely shaken by the advent of computers in the classroom;
- Even then I was concerned about more than just teaching, or even teaching and learning: the issue for me was education, in its widest (and truest) sense. That is the purpose of our schools (and colleges and universities), and it is only by wrestling with what we mean by the term that we will be able to plot our course into the next 20 years.
As I tried to look ahead into a new millennium it is clear that my image was considerably less than the perfect 2020 vision—more a case of seeing through a glass darkly. That said, I continue to believe that there is value in crystal ball gazing if it can be done with optimism and at least a small measure of agency.