The latest government proposals to expand the number of grammar schools across the country, is just the latest in a long line of educational reforms which neglect the opinions and expertise of school teachers, and this centralised, top-down approach to education reform is one reason for the UK’s declining educational standards.
The idea to expand grammar schools in the UK has been instigated by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her grammar school peers, and the ‘reforms’ are based entirely on nostalgia and their personal experiences. In contrast, education professionals such as Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former Head of Ofsted, have a far more balanced understanding on how opening new grammar schools would impact the country’s wider education system, concluding that more grammar schools would “reduce standards for the great majority of children”. Never-the-less, the grammar schools initiative is likely to go ahead because of the centralised nature of education in the England and Wales, which ignores the expertise of classroom teachers who have the clearest understanding of the state of education in the country.
The Grammar School debate is simply the latest example of top-down reforms and ‘innovations’ directed by bureaucrats and politicians. A NUS survey conducted earlier this year revealed how out-of-touch decision makers are from the realities of the classroom environment, as the following conclusions, from General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), Christine Blower, indicate,
“This Government has the wrong priorities. It dresses up every change in the cloak of advancing standards. This is fooling no one. Their strategy of cuts, teacher shortages and far reaching, chaotic curriculum and assessment changes, simply isn’t working.”
“This is top-down change, imposed from above, with no logical or evidence based justification. It risks a serious spike in school leader resignations, which is simply too high a price to pay.”
If the current government genuinely wished to improve education standards in all regions, at all levels, and within all types of educational institution, then they would look at success stories from countries which have decentralized their education systems and empowered schools with the autonomy to innovate and personalise learning, such as Finland and Canada.
Since breaking into the PISA Top 10, Finland has been the subject of much attention from educators, academics and policy makers. The Finnish education system’s impressive progress is linked to decentralization and increased autonomy for schools and districts. In Finland, schools and programmes of study are primarily organized around the needs of the specific community that they serve.
Furthermore, school funding in Finland, “is not divided into specific amounts for salaries, labs, instruments, books or whatever— it is a lump sum and the school authorities can use it as they like,” says Reijo Aholainen, a spokesperson for the Finnish ministry of education, “You have to follow the national core curriculum but how you do it, whether you want more teachers or more computers, is a local decision on the part of the school board.”
The education success story in Ontario, Canada is another example where decentralisation, school autonomy and modern leadership approached contributed to a significant improvement in education attainment. Central to this success story was each school’s ability to identify their students’ learning needs and adapt their teaching to meet these specific needs.
The United States has also been able to realise the benefits of institutions having educational autonomy, and teachers within those schools being able to contribute to the institution’s progress and development. Research from the US, indicates that, ‘where teachers feel more influential in school decision-making, the test scores in both math and language are significantly higher.’
Conclusions from the States indicate that while schools need autonomy from central government to function effectively, teachers and educators within schools also need modern leadership structures and sufficient levels of autonomy to adapt learning and teaching to educate students effectively.
Advocates of democratic leadership models, such as distributed leadership and democratic leadership, who assert that innovations in learning are most effective when teachers are empowered to significantly contribute to the innovation’s development and implementation, have welcomed the changes these regions have made and call for more educational authorities to adopt these approaches.
The need to share leadership and decision making within educational organisations is no longer simply an ideologically preference, but considering how educational institutions are becoming increasingly complex, these reforms to leadership structures are also pragmatic because it is now unrealistic for the school principal to be an ‘expert’ in all matters.
Educational theorist, Bell, criticizes the traditional ‘monopolizations of power’ by senior management teams (SMT) who, despite their disconnect from classroom realties, often neglect the opinions of experienced classroom teachers, and he calls for a more democratic approach to planning and leadership in schools.
Research has revealed a number of benefits for educational organisations which adopt shared leadership frameworks because the teachers leading change have ‘front-line knowledge of classroom issues and the culture of schools, and they understand the support they need to do their jobs well’. An additional benefit of including teachers in decision making was highlighted by Sheppard and Weiss, who have both argued that empowering teachers increases the commitment of these individuals towards the institution’s development and the school’s goals because, ‘when teachers share in decision-making, they become committed to the decisions that emerge. They buy into the decision; they feel a sense of ownership; therefore, they are more likely to see that decisions are actually implemented’ (Weiss).
As schools in Finland, Canada and the US, become increasingly successful and efficient, by reaping the rewards from having adopted and implemented modern leadership structures, England continues to suffer from a top-down centralised approach to education which stifles creativity and put schools at the mercy of each new government, which strives to leave its own mark on the country’s education system.