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Déjà vu all over again: the endless loop of education policy

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 July 2014

Chris Husbands
Labour’s shadow secretary of state for education, Tristram Hunt, has begun to flesh out details of policy implementation should Labour win the next election. Speaking to Andrew Marr last weekend, he outlined a plan for ‘super teachers’, a new grade of ‘master teacher’.
This would be a new career pathway because, he said, “at the moment too many good teachers are moving out of the classroom and becoming heads”. It’s likely that the next Labour government will “create a new grade of teachers to recognise the best”. The difficulty, however, is that the second quotation is not from Mr Hunt but from the 1997 Labour manifesto, and that the manifesto proposal did, indeed, bear fruit: advanced skills teachers (ASTs) were introduced in 1998.
Advanced skills teachers were intended to support other teachers who were struggling in the classroom, to provide advice on pedagogy, to teach model lessons and to lead the professional development of new and existing teachers in both their own and other schools. Twenty per cent of AST time was meant to be spent on outreach.
As with the Hunt proposal, the intention was to open a career – and reward – route which did not make excellent teachers leave the classroom in order to get ahead. Over the next 13 years, some 4,000 ASTs were designated across the school system – or about one for every five schools.
In 2010, Andy Goodwin and a team from Reading University surveyed their impact. They found that ASTs were “highly motivated” and “talented” teachers, but the “definition and expectation of the role [was]… clearly highly variable and dependent, in large part, on school… priorities as well as the attitudes of the headteacher”.
AST designation fell with the last government in 2010, but in 2011, Dame Sally Coates’s review of teacher standards proposed the development of a new ’master teacher’ designation, again based on outstanding classroom teaching. But this time – and this reflected a finding in the Goodwin review – with a stronger and more explicit focus on subject knowledge. At the time, the proposals were not widely welcomed, since (unlike the AST proposals) they did not come with any dedicated funding, and certainly for some unions, the designation ’master teacher’ was felt to be anachronistic in a largely feminised profession.
There is a debate to be had about how, and how successfully government can introduce a new career grade in a devolved and largely autonomous school system. It has been done – apparently successfully – in Singapore, as Hunt pointed out. But that’s not the main point of this blog post. The point is that we have been here before – twice – in 1998 and 2011. On each occasion, there have been proposals, more or less carefully worked through, to introduce a career grade for highly accomplished teachers.
It would be good to think that policy development might draw on recent experience. And if this blog has some fun at the expense of Tristram Hunt, the same applies to his political opponent. Just a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State began a move towards a more explicit curriculum focus on ‘British values’ without appearing to draw at all on the experiences of either the John Major government or the Blair government in developing a civic focus in the school curriculum.
It would be good to have better informed politicians. It would also be good, however, to have a better education policy process. One of the most engaging reads of this year has been Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s study The Blunders of Our Governments in which they analyse in careful detail major, expensive and, normally, unnecessary policy errors. In every case, there was an implied cry somewhere in the policy that “this time it’s different”. It rarely is.

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3 Responses to “Déjà vu all over again: the endless loop of education policy”

  • 1
    Paul Temple wrote on 9 July 2014:

    David Watson has suggested that every government department should have an office marked “Cassandra”: every time a new policy is proposed, someone should knock on the door and say, “Cassandra, tell us why it didn’t work last time”,

  • 2
    Miss Honey wrote on 9 July 2014:

    Why a new grade that elevates a chosen few to higher pay and status? Why not educate all teachers to be Master teachers as they do in Finland, and simultaneously raise their pay and status so that they are on a par with GPs and other professionals, as they have also done in Finland? Oh, I know why, because this is Britain, and our politicians are only interested in relatively inexpensive short term gimmicks, which might catch a few votes before the next election. Never mind that the same gimmick has failed in the past, as long as it looks good in the manifesto.

  • 3
    Edubabble – Master teachers, how genes affect maths skills and research ethics wrote on 12 July 2014:

    […] You can read the post in full on the Institute of Education blog. […]