Establishing a schooling system which allows for creativity

Tim Brighouse

North of England Education Conference, Leeds, 5 January 2012


I was asked to talk about passion and creativity in education and schools in particular. I found I could not do this without first reflecting on the way our schooling system is governed, managed and held accountable. Clearly the arrangements of these functions powerfully affect the capacity of those within schools to be creative and passionate about what they do. For example none of us would think there would be much room for creativity in modern day North Korea, or the Soviet Union of my youth – still less Hitler’s Germany or the church states of the sixteenth century. These examples have many characteristics but few are appealing to those who espouse creativity and passion in education. So that’s why I asked the President if I could change the title of my talk and extend its remit.

My fear is that in England at any rate – I exclude Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – we are sleepwalking into arrangements for our schooling system where comparisons with non-democratic countries are closer than anywhere else in the Western world.

So my first section is to explain these centralising tendencies and their dangers as well as an intrusion of political influence into matters which are properly the concern of professionals. In the second, I note the guiding ideas and theories which have governed successive governments’ educational reforms since the early 1980s. A third section will outline some of the educational functions affecting the schooling system and how powers should be shared between the school and national and local democratic government. A fourth part of the paper will examine any changes to governance at the level of the school, the wider locality and nationally. Finally I shall elaborate a few ways in which passion and creativity can be given appropriate room to flourish in the schooling system.

Section 1

The drift towards excessive centralism: its generic dangers and the need to avoid it in education [1]

To understand the danger more clearly, we need to embark on a ‘1066 and all that’ explanation of our recent history and the need for checks and balances among the various arms of government if our notions of democracy are to be upheld.

It is no co-incidence that the full development of modern local government and an involvement of the state in education in the UK followed the 19th century’s three Reform Acts which extended fully male suffrage. If democracy were to involve all males and shortly afterwards all females, a parliament elected once every five years and a schooling system left to charity and private schools or individual governesses and tutors were clearly inadequate.

History students are also taught that democracy suffers if one aspect of government becomes too powerful at the expense of another. The struggle between monarchs and parliament is at the heart of our island story and today there is proper concern about the balance between the power of the executive and that of the Houses of Parliament.

It is easy to overlook, especially with media ever more heavily based in London, that another feature of our democratic safeguards of checks and balances is a balance between the powers of central and local government. Moreover as major provincial daily newspapers, such as the Birmingham Post, collapse, it is less and less likely that this erosion of local democracy will be noticed or contested.

So nobody much bothers either that the story of municipalisation, which brought our major cities supplies of clean water gas and electricity, was a story of vibrant and successful action by local government, or that the assets they thus acquired were first taken by central government and then privatised. In education in my working lifetime, the network of colleges of advanced technology together with the colleges of education were sequestrated from local government to charitable organisations and companies limited by guarantee to found the major part of our university system. So too the colleges of further education. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that exactly the same is happening to our schools through the academies programme and through the systematic acquisition by central government of land assets so that free schools and academies can be built in the future. Nor should we be surprised that this is happening without compensation to local government which is increasingly being left with responsibilities it has neither the resource nor the expertise or high quality staff to discharge.

Yet some of us are surprised. It would never happen in Scotland, or Wales or Northern Ireland where local government is much stronger and more fully developed. A United Kingdom, at least in a strong local democracy, we are not.

As the former head of the BBC World Service Nigel Chapman remarked when he heard I was attending this conference and intended to convey this message ‘Well if you want to be heard surely you should be attending the South of England Conference. They are holding it in the wrong place.’

I have belaboured this point because, although I am first and foremost interested in education, I believe that its healthy development at least in the early years and the schools is inextricably linked to local democracy.

Local democracy has suffered. I have always worried on behalf of local democracy even though occasionally it has got me in hot water with the very people whose interests I was seeking to defend. For example I wrote a piece for the Observer in the summer of 1987 when the prospect of a national curriculum and some of the other reforms of the 1988 Education Reform Act caused me to compare the impact of the proposed changes to the worst excesses of authoritarian church states of the 16th century and, even worse for my audience, the fascist despots of the 1930s. In a purple finale I said that however hard I tried I could not rid myself of flickering images of brown and black and I worried not for myself or my children but for my grandchildren. What a stir that article caused. Oxfordshire County Council, my employers at that time, spent a whole morning debating a motion calling for my dismissal for what one described as my ‘lèse-majesté’. To my relief the motion was lost. I confess I didn’t regret the written piece then. I see no reason to revise that opinion now, when the days have too quickly arrived when my grandchildren are going through the schooling system.

Then I regretted that the Secretary of State would have over 250 new powers, as a result of the 1988 Education Reform Act. His predecessors had enjoyed only three powers of direction: the removal of wartime air-raid shelters from school playgrounds; the determination of the numbers in teacher training and in the colleges where they would be taught; and the approval of the opening and closure of schools and the size of the school building programme. The previous delicate balance of powers and influence among participants was finally fractured by the 1988 Act. This balance had been struck among central government, local government, the schools themselves, the churches, the teachers and representatives of these stakeholders. Moreover it touched more than a balance of political power: it acknowledged another necessary balance, namely the respective responsibilities of the professional and the politician and by implication the danger of what might be called ‘demagogic’ overstepping of the mark by elected politicians.

This twofold set of balances – central/local and professional/lay – had been created by the 1944 Education Act. So the Schools Council, with the teachers strongly represented, promoted discussion of the curriculum, for that was seen as a matter for the schools overseen by Local Education Authorities. Whenever key strategic directions had to be determined on other matters, Royal Commissions and a Central Advisory Council would be set up and their recommendations accepted, or not, by discussion among the various partners. So, for example, the future developments in Higher Education, Primary, Secondary and Teacher Education were associated with the names of Robbins, Plowden, Crowther, Newsom, and James who chaired independent committees of the great and the good which had taken evidence, examined research and then produced reports which powerfully affected future development.

Whenever the Secretary of State considered issuing a circular, or contributed to the educational debate, he knew he could rely on the independent expert advice of HMI who sat alongside civil servants, who urged participants to fight at the first ditch should ministers wish to interfere in professional matters. Nor did ministers show any sign of misunderstanding their position. For example in what now appears as an astonishing ‘Foreword’ to ‘Story of a School’ (a Ministry of Education pamphlet/circular of 1949 reissued in the 1950s as the best advice to primary schools), readers are encouraged to learn of the adventurous practice of an inner city primary school and themselves take inspiration from the story and do likewise in exploring new methods. It was the only advice given to primary schools until the Plowden Report of 1967.

The post war consensus (that education was a good thing and all we needed was more of it), however, was beginning to evaporate. There were the Black Papers of the late 1960s, student unrest in universities and the scandals of the London schools Risinghill and William Tyndale, not to mention the oil crisis. Jim Callaghan added fuel to the fire with the launch of the Great Debate in 1976. Subsequently, a circular to LEAs asking how they supervised the curriculum and the establishment of separate governing bodies for every school were straws in the wind. So also was the decision of Keith Joseph to earmark ½% of the amount spent on school budgets for specific grants to fund the Low Achievers Project (LAP) and TVEI. Ministers, for the first time, tasted the heady brew of backing their pet ideas with money, which cash strapped LEAs could be relied on to match even by cutting elsewhere in their budgets because specific funding was financially attractive and a lifeline for beleaguered and corporately managed Chief Education Officers..

Finally and irrevocably, the educational landscape changed dramatically in 1988. Power shifted to the schools on the one hand, in respect of governance and budgetary control through so-called LMS (Local Management of Schools), and on the other, in respect of the curriculum, to central government and in particular the Secretary of State. Inevitably the losers in this shift of power downwards and upwards were those in the middle, the LEAs. As I have already remarked, the Polytechnics were taken away from local government, which had created them, as were the Colleges of Further Education and the Colleges of Education.

Since 1988 the move towards centralism has gathered pace. The Secretary of State now has over 2000 powers. The ½% spent on specific grant, introduced as I have noted by an agonised Keith Joseph, expanded in the years following 1988 and particularly under the Labour Government, as they used the Standards Funds to promote ministers’ pet ideas – whether it was to reduce teenage pregnancy, introduce Education Action Zones or fund Excellence in Cities. The professional autonomy of teachers began to disappear at first in what they taught. Prior to 1988 LEAs, who in those days were experienced partners in making headship and senior appointments in partnership with schools and their governing bodies, looked for candidates who were curriculum thinkers as well as leaders. After 1988 they looked for managers, since of course the curriculum was a given. But it did not stop there. Professional interference was soon to extend beyond ‘what to teach’ to ‘how to teach it’. The promotion of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours had strings attached to ensure compliance with centrally determined priorities. This is a further example of what I have earlier described as lay/political intrusion into matters which require expert professional knowledge and judgement.

Those who govern maintained schools now have to contend with being regulated by 30,000 regulations. The Academies on the other hand are freed from such central regulatory control and are subject to about 6,000 regulations; for they are controlled by ‘contract’ law as opposed to legislative obligation. According to one of the few lawyers[2] who have made a lifetime career and study of educational law and how other legislation impacts on schools, this dependence on ‘contract’ law is significant and it means that we cannot be sure locally whether the sum of the parts of the ‘contracts’ set centrally with individual academies adds up to a fair whole picture for all children and their parents. The fact is we just don’t know.

The earlier move towards ‘state independent schools’ – the ‘grant-maintained school’ (GMS) – did not free those schools from legislation affecting schools.

So the Academies were born at first as a means of by-passing normal planning and funding mechanisms in order to get resources and new buildings to schools which had a long record of chronic and acute student underachievement in areas of great disadvantage. The earlier GMS model had done the same thing but not for schools necessarily facing disadvantage. The academy door has been opened wider by the Coalition government so that the expectation is that all schools will become Academies. These new Academies and their cousins, the Free Schools, excused the prescription of the national curriculum, have leapt out of the frying pan of local authority supposed control and into the fire of the control of a secretary of state who, through annual funding agreement letters will be able, if he so wishes, to decide what should be taught. Ultimately too he has the power to decide whether the Academies and Free schools should be closed or should change their character and remain open. The legislation, and the reliance on ‘contract’ law, means that it is the Secretary of State, not Parliament itself, which will make all these decisions and exercise this power. Given the growing feebleness of Parliament in holding the executive to account as well as its growing incapacity in scrutinising the plethora of legislation which passes before it, that is not a happy prospect.

I have one further reservation namely the competence of government to manage 20,000 schools even if some of them form themselves into chains. Mistakes were made by the Funding Agency for Schools when it ran a few hundred Grant Maintained Schools. There are already signs of strain this autumn that Academies are becoming restless. One head is quoted in the Journal of Secondary Education last September ‘It is an absolute mess. (-He was talking about budgets-) We were told becoming an academy would free us up but I feel more constrained than ever … This is incompetence by the DFE at the highest level.’ The TES last week had similar stories.

Finally, as a result of the last Education Act, the Secretary of State will not be constrained by having to take advice from the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency which is to be abolished. It like many other Quangos has become an agency of the Department so that even those modest checks on ministerial power implied by an arms-length Quango will be removed. The same legislation means that parents who have complaints can no longer go to the Ombudsman but – yes, you have guessed it – to the Secretary of State who will be judge and jury in his own house on complaints about the system.

I conclude this opening section by underlining why such centralism is particularly unhealthy for teachers’ creativity and passion. The erosion of professional freedom in what is taught and how it is taught matters because it insults and puts at risk the professional judgement of teachers. Take the teaching of reading. Synthetic Phonics is an effective approach to the teaching of reading and I admire the work of Ruth Miskin more than I can say. But it is not the only approach which is effective, nor even, for some children, in some situations, the right one. Bringing and promoting to teachers and schools what research evidence and successful schools’ practices is to be commended – I would go so far as saying it is a vital ingredient in school improvement. But it should never go so far as imposed prescription which at the level of the nation – I would say at the level of the Local Authority also – is too remote from the messy realities and complexities of the classroom and the many variables among individual children and teachers. Indeed even at school level a skill of the outstanding headteacher lies in deciding on what matters, and to what extent, it is desirable that staff should ‘sing from the same song sheet’ and on what it is possible to encourage individuality and professional flair and innovation.

I hope therefore I have established that the delicate system of checks and balances has been dangerously upset both as between central and local government and between professional and politician.

What we need – and it is already overdue – is a political debate about these issues with the aim of producing a new settlement, which enshrines a proper democratic balance as between central and local and the professional and political. As we have such a debate, we must recognise that our existing local government’s professional capacity in education grows ever weaker, but we mustn’t let that mislead us into thinking either that there should be no local democratic involvement or that it cannot be rebuilt.

Section 2

The political context for the debate

It would be stupid to ignore the constraints imposed on such a debate by the limitations of presently acceptable political thinking. This has manifested itself in the frequent repetition of ‘mantra words’ such as ‘choice’, ‘diversity’, ‘autonomy’, ‘equity’, ‘equality’, ‘excellence’ and ‘accountability’ often asserted as though they are uncontested and mutually reconcilable desirables. For that is what national politicians have done in all the White Papers preceding the 35 educational acts of parliament in the last 30 years. There has never been any acknowledgement that if you ratchet up the first three too far and create too much of a competitive market, then the sufferer will be ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ of opportunity. Of course by funding and the use of ‘accountability’ the market can be constrained and regulated in order to safeguard ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ of opportunity. It is interesting again to note that Scotland and Wales have been more cautious in adopting the systemic implications of ‘autonomy’ and ‘diversity’ than is the case in England. The recent legislation for England further weakens the role of the local authority, by abandoning the Admission Forum in relation School Admissions where the Statutory Code of Practice has been simplified and in the process weakened, while the national guardian of equity in admissions, the Schools’ Adjudicator, has also lost some of his powers of intervention. Mr Gove’s introduction of the EBacc, incidentally not using one of his 2000 plus powers, but as a simple measure of accountability, also adversely affects ‘equity’. Resources in some schools were immediately diverted and changes made in the timetable so that high performers would engage with the new measure at the expense of other pupils.

I confess I am assuming that most people will accept that there should be some limit on choice and that an agency other than the school should ensure fair play in order that we do not end up with the school choosing the pupil – or even the pupil’s parent – rather than the other way round. I am assuming too that how someone should teach is a professional not a political matter but that what is taught is a complex mixture of responsible professional and political debate and decision.

Section 3

Towards a systemic solution: sharing responsibilities

If any new settlement is to be effective, it is necessary to strike a balance among both on the one hand the powers of the school, the local democracy – in whatever from that takes – and central government and, on the other hand the powers of the professional and the politician.

To do that it is necessary to form a view in both respects – (central/local and professional/political) – on the following 15 functions and activities:-

  1. 1. Securing of equity principally through admissions
  2. 2. Planning and provision of places
  3. 3. Planning and securing the provision of specialist support services for SEN
  4. 4. Creation of new SEN places
  5. 5. Transport to and from school
  6. 6. The organisation of provision beyond the school e.g. extended school, youth service etc.
  7. 7. Planning and provision of pre-school provision
  8. 8. Careers advice
  9. 9. School Improvement services
  10. 10. Teaching Learning and Assessment
  11. 11. Supply of a sufficient number of suitably qualified teachers for the schools
  12. 12. Funding of schools
  13. 13. Inspection of schools
  14. 14. Curriculum
  15. Harnessing the ‘commonwealth’ in support of the schools’ efforts to achieve ever higher standards of pupil outcome.

The list is not intended to be comprehensive although, apart from the last, every item is familiar and easily understood.

For each of these it is possible to debate whether and to what extent the Secretary of State and/or the school itself and/or some sort of middle tier linked to the democratic process should have a role. Some are relatively easy to decide. For example it seems unlikely that the Secretary of State would be able to secure equity of access in every town, village and city from the vantage point of Whitehall. Nor would the individual school. So the primary responsibility should lie beyond the school and below Whitehall. That agency should be a local democracy of some form. The same can be said for the second item – the planning of provision – although the capacity of the local democratic agency to carry out those plans will be circumscribed by the Secretary of State deciding among competing claims for scarce resources. Indeed the next two, affecting SEN are similarly locally and perhaps regionally driven. As we go down the list and pass number 7 the balance shifts towards the school as having the prime responsibility until we reach the numbers 11 to 13 where the Secretary of State is clearly in the best position to ensure some common national standards. I have used the phrase ‘prime responsibility’ in order to convey that it is a lead responsibility. In some cases that responsibility will be dependent on others shouldering ‘support’ responsibilities.

The curriculum is and, since the Great Debate launched by the Callaghan speech of 1976, has always been the subject of most dispute. The question which has been unaddressed by successive Ministers is ‘At what level and in what detail should there be central prescription?’ A background to the answer to that question is to recognise that the combination of the examination system, the publication of school by school results and the publication of inspection reports on individual schools by OFSTED imposes a strong influence on what schools do. Indeed that central influence is stronger than in any other western democracy.

It is in this territory that the balance of the professional and the political needs correction. It would seem odd if, in the health field Ministers, told professionals the correct approach to heart by-pass surgery. Of course in that field there is an independent professional body which advises Ministers both on what topic advice is sensible and what to advise. In education there are no longer any checks and balances of that sort.

The Secretary of State has a role in setting out the broad aims and objectives of the curriculum[3]. Such a statement, however, should be brief and schools and teachers themselves would be encouraged to ensure that their detailed curriculum plans meet those broad aims. There should be a place for the subject associations, which neatly articulate the local and the national professional voice, to issue guidance which would be modified from time to time.

There is much more to be said about the curriculum – whether it should have a global and local as well as a national dimension for example, and whether it should be expressed in terms of skills, knowledge, values and ideas – but I have simply set out here the need for the debate and for the terms of that debate to be agreed so that the central political voice should not dominate in the way it does in totalitarian regimes and is in imminent danger of doing here.

Before finishing this part of the paper with a few comments on funding, it is appropriate to elaborate what is meant by the last item. A small number of local authorities have begun to realise the potential in harnessing all what might be called the ‘common wealth’ of their area in support of the efforts of the schools in unlocking more of the potential of more of their pupils. They have done this in two ways: first by establishing in a debate with the community a minimum set of experiences which they expect every child to have in the early years, in the primary years and in the years between 11 and 18 respectively; and second by then ensuring that the ‘common wealth’- whether in museums, theatres, arts centres, galleries, concert halls, sports facilities, places of worship, colleges, industry or especially the local media – provides opportunities for every child to gain those experiences. In short this activity is to ensure that every child enjoys what the well off and good enough parent provides for their own child.

This activity goes further. It builds on the African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child and ensures that all the children know that the whole community cares about their future. We have seen in the summer riots[4] what happens when that is not the case and the growing issue of youth unemployment threatens to undermine the self-belief which our schools are at pains to encourage. Continually re-enforced campaigns involving the local media and all the local agencies are imperative and need to be orchestrated. So the same local democratic agency needs to ensure that happens and that scarce specialist advice and resource is orchestrated not just to help pupils with SEN, but those at risk of succumbing to the numbing futility of life with many obstacles to their prospects.

School improvement will loom large in the minds of those involved in local campaigns to raise standards of outcome. They will be keen to ensure that in their locality schools take note of where the best practice is nationally and regionally as well as in their area. It is interesting to reflect that ‘school improvement’ hadn’t entered the vocabulary in the discussions leading to the 1988 Education Reform Act. Until recently national politicians have displayed a touching, if misplaced, faith in national solutions. So we had a national curriculum, numeracy and literacy hours followed by national strategies. About the only initiative which ran counter to this was the London Challenge followed by the Greater Manchester and Black Country Challenges. They showed that applying certain principles and practices and, crucially, allowing variation according to context seemed to have a significant and measurable effect on school outcomes. We now know a great deal more than we did about school improvement and how to bring it about. The Coalition seems convinced however that to make every school an Academy or a Free School is the answer. (Yet, bizarrely, they spend considerable time effort and money on revising the national curriculum which of course won’t apply to Academies and Free Schools!)

How the school improvement function is resolved is crucial. It would be dangerous to leave it to the Secretary of State. It is equally dangerous to leave it to the local democratic agency. At the moment there is a hope that a network of Teaching Schools organised by the National College supplemented by National Leaders in Education (NLEs) and Subject Leaders in Education (SLEs) and their local equivalents will suffice. The model of National College accredited ‘school improvers’ however is surely correct. There is scope for a not-for-profit group of professionals to carry out the work. It probably requires an annual review between the local democratic agency, the National College and the DFE to determine which schools in an area require what attention.

The funding of schools’ running costs is a complex issue. The promised national formula is unlikely to be brought in quickly because of the turbulence which the change will require. Indeed it is difficult to see how the question of how to fund the central costs of responsibilities traditionally carried out by the LA can be resolved until we are clear about the school model to be adopted.

Section 4


The school

Politicians have focused their attention on ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’ – see section 2 – on the institution of the school. It seems likely that the move towards the model of the Academy is here to stay. There are of course other state funded schools and all should surely be subject to the same regulations and rules of engagement. ‘Equity’ demands nothing less.

So any new settlement will need to address the existing anomalies and in particular the models – there will be more than one – of school governance that make best sense. Clearly governors can affect school practice and one of the unremarked weaknesses of the process is the means of appointing new heads. A governing body will not be experienced in doing this and there would much to be said for the final choice of shortlisted candidates to be made by a joint panel of governors and external experts – perhaps a combination of NLEs and education guardians (see below). Governors will continue to need training in their complex responsibilities.

Schools operating in isolation are less likely to meet the needs of all their pupils than if they work in partnership. The trouble is that schools are drawn into all sorts of partnerships which wax and wane with the shifting energy and arrivals and leavings of key personnel. I would limit schools obligations to an expectation that they belong to two partnerships. One would have the explicit duty to work locally with other schools and other professionals to look after the needs of the most vulnerable children and their families. The second would be for school improvement and should be voluntarily formed with schools chosen from the ‘Family of Schools’ data bases so that professional development and school improvement are encouraged by inter school visits and observations. An element of funding should be dependent on evidence of successful partnership work.

The Secretary of State

‘The power of the executive has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished’ is a familiar cry but, in the case of the present Secretary of State for Education should be taken seriously. I have elaborated earlier the powers he holds and the checks to his power he has removed. Some of the latter should be reversed. For example the National College and a Curriculum Development Authority should be ‘arms-length’ independent bodies composed of governors nominated by the LGA, the professional associations and the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would be obliged to take public advice from these bodies and Ofsted before taking decisions affecting curriculum or school improvement. He should also be advised independently on the question of his duty to secure an adequate supply of suitably qualified teachers.

Most importantly of all he should be charged with the duty of regularly reviewing the effectiveness of the local agency in discharging the duties and functions for which they are responsible. It always struck me as odd that in 36 years working in local authorities, I never had a visit, from a minister accompanied by senior DFE officials, which took stock with me and leading councillors our progress locally in discharging our educational responsibilities. Given the final power, set out in section 3 above and elaborated below, such formal reviews will be essential to the smooth and effective running of the system and ever improved standards in the future. It will be a review to which the local MPS will be invited.

The local democratic agency

One of the growing difficulties of the last few years is the dishonesty with which successive central governments have treated local government. They purport to respect local government yet in departments of state which have to deal with it, there is scarcely concealed contempt for local authorities so that ministers are surrounded by people who have little time for local authorities whom they regard as ‘part of the problem’. I deeply regret that after spending all but the last five years of my career working in local government. There I witnessed remarkable creativity, value for money and far-sightedness among its officers and political leaders of all persuasions. Above all I saw a capacity to join things up which seems to elude central government as a whole and even within different sections of one department of state.

The problems facing local government have been compounded by a long standing unwillingness to address its funding base. Indeed apart from the so-called modernisation which replaced a committee structure involving all elected members with a cabinet giving power to a few and modelled on Whitehall, there has been no overall look at local government since Redcliffe-Maud in the late 1960s. (Of course there have been successive fiddling with structures in London and in the creation of more unitary authorities, but there has been no overall independent look at how local democracy should express itself to mirror the attention given to great effect in Wales and Scotland).

Such a review is now needed.

In the meantime there has to be a view of what we need to do in education to discharge the functions where a local democratic lead is desirable (see section 3 above).

There needs to be the creation of a board of guardians with a core of directly elected members based on parliamentary constituencies to be elected at the same time as MPs. (The connection is important in that MPs need to be drawn into the campaign for ever higher standards and into realising the need for Parliament to hold the Secretary of State to account in discharging his thousands of educational powers) The core of elected guardians – perhaps two per constituency – would be supplemented by co-options. The size of the board and the area it represents would be coterminous with existing LA boundaries and their parliamentary constituencies.

So the School Board would be responsible for:-


  • Equity principally through admissions
  • Planning and provision of places
  • Planning and securing the provision of specialist support services for SEN
  • Creation of new SEN places
  • Transport to and from school
  • The organisation of provision beyond the school e.g. extended school, youth service etc.
  • Planning and provision of pre-school provision and


  • The ‘commonwealth’ in support of the schools’ efforts to achieve ever higher standards of pupil outcome.

The first of these responsibilities should make it clear that they should not provide these services themselves. They might commission the LA to do it but they might equally go through a process of competitive tendering and allocate the task to a third sector organisation and they might offer to commission any services which schools choose to ask them to secure on their behalf.

(It may be that there needs to be a different solution in cities with elected mayors and in London where parliamentary constituencies cross different LAs and where in any case there is an argument for larger Boards of Guardians.)

The second of these responsibilities, namely harnessing support of the schools’ efforts has been explained earlier and should release plenty of scope and room for school creativity and passion. It is to that I now finally turn.

Section 5

The need for creativity and passion in schools and how to unlock it

In the period prior to the introduction of the national curriculum, there was no shortage of creativity in the curriculum and in teaching. Indeed LEAs selected heads according to their curricular approach in addition, of course, to their capacity to be effective leaders of groups of teachers and other staff as well as the wider school community.

The reforms I have proposed should go a long way to restoring the external environment, particularly locally, in which teaching and learning creativity and passion can flourish internally within schools. The harnessing of the local ‘commonwealth’ to support schools will doubtless involve local enthusiasts, including some from universities, sharing their enthusiasms with youngsters in schools. How schools and their communities agree on the common sets of experiences (which they guarantee every child will enjoy) will, in its implementation, also unlock creative partnerships which will enthuse the lives of local youngsters.

We should not however dodge the key question of accountability. England has developed over the last twenty years the most intrusive accountability system involving publication of a barrage of national test and exam results and the Ofsted inspection of schools. It is very expensive and is on course to become more so.

It also has the impact of encouraging the most challenged schools not to take risks and to focus in what may be a counterproductive emphasis simply on those things measured and for which they held accountable i.e. principally results in basic skills and attendance data. Now there are exceptions to this and most of those schools which flourish in such circumstances have exceptional leaders. It is urgent that we learn from those schools.

Much depends also on the internal environment of the school. It always has. Schools can be places where heads encourage staff to take risks in their teaching and to encourage all to seek to extend their own learning in order to continually improve as a teacher. So job descriptions and performance management detail matter. They can support or suffocate creativity and passion. So too can the timetable. Suspended timetables need to be thought through so that full value for intensive traumatic learning can be realised in whole days or weeks of a different rhythm of learning. Making research a defining feature of primary and secondary school life also helps creativity in the sense that it involves real and structured learning by staff and pupils. It is easy to see how there could be ‘researchers in residence’ from nearby universities at every secondary school as well as making research rather than topic work an essential feature of primary schools’ curriculum.

Most important of all is the recruitment of staff, both to teaching as a whole and to the individual school, who are committed and passionate about their teaching and who are supported in the continual development of that sort of intellectual curiosity which is the hallmark of successful teachers. That implies the school itself devoting much imagination and resource to the CPD programme within the school. It is an extraordinary neglect that that we have allowed the agencies which provide CPD to wither on the vine.

One is left, at the last, with the question of how we shall recognise the passionate and creative teacher when we see them.

I can do no better than to end with a quotation from Robert Fried.

‘Of some of our teachers we remember their foibles and mannerisms, of others their kindness and encouragement, or their fierce devotion to standards of work we probably didn’t share at the time. And of those we remember most, we remember what they cared about and that they cared about us, and the person we might become. It is this quality of caring about ideas and values, this fascination with the potential for growth within people, this depth and fervour about doing things well and striving for excellence that comes closest to what I mean in describing a ‘passionate teacher’’

We wouldn’t be in bad shape if we had teachers like that. I believe we have. All we need to is find ways of recognising their achievements.

Tim Brighouse is Chair of the New Visions for Education Group

(He was formerly Commissioner for London Schools and Chief Education Officer for Birmingham and earlier for Oxfordshire)

[1] Much of the first two sections of this paper were presented in a paper ‘Decline and Fall: are state schools and universities on the point of collapse?’ at Oxford on 15th September 2010 cf.

[2]Cf .a paper by Clayton,G

[3] It would be helpful to have a full national debate about the purposes of education. It would reflect what happens in schools from time to time and would reveal a purpose that is less reductionist than generally underpins national initiatives.

[4] It is interesting that in the two parts of the UK where there is the most developed local government there was no rioting last summer