Dame Kathy August: Education and the Olympic legacy

Dame Kathy August argues that education can learn a lot from the recent Olympic success of Team GB when it comes to the allocation and management of resources.

I have to confess that I was a fair-weather Olympic watcher, having found the amount of TV coverage overwhelming, and breathed a sigh of relief when the final day of this first round of Olympic competition came to an end.

Despite my fainthearted support I did find myself, however, regularly checking the medals table, unable to believe that GB was going to finish second. Memories of Olympics prior to London 2012, with the “plucky Brits” trying hard but failing to finish in one of the top three positions, were ingrained in the psyche and seeing the number of gold and silver medals accumulating during the two weeks of the Olympics was so atypical as to be unbelievable.

The success of the women’s hockey team was of particular interest to me as the team captain, Kate Richardson Walsh, had been a pupil at the school where I had my second headship.

I was left wondering, how is it that a country the size of GB came second in the medal table, only beaten by the sporting giant that is the USA ?

What had changed in the way Team GB was being prepared over the past 15 years? I remember Kate’s dedication to hockey as a young adult so have a small insight into the length of time needed for the performance of Gold medal winners to gestate and develop.

One sporting official in an interview on BBC Breakfast (22/8/16) explained what had made the difference. While the vast amount of Lottery money has played a big part, it was as much about the approach that accompanied this new money. The overarching priority was to focus on medal-winning and this, with a set of other priorities that were attached to the money, remains unchanged from the moment the investment was made.

No time was spent in meetings by committees discussing the latest fad or ideas which could divert time and resources. The priorities were the priorities and they continue unchanged. The consistency that this approach produces seems to be the single underpinning factor for the success we saw in 2012 and now in 2016. Each sport has responsibility for using the resources to deliver on the same priority: ensuring medal-winners.

Not all sports delivered at the same rate but the priority attached to the resource remained unchanged.

Is there a way of converting this approach for education? For example, how might the allocation of educational resources in the North be approached in the same way as has been done for sport? Once allocated, would it be possible to then back away and leave schools to their own devices?

What difference might be seen in relation to education policy? Remembering of course that education is a universal entitlement, free at the point-of-delivery, as opposed to sport where participants self-select as well as being selected.

Let me suggest what it might look like.

The medal equivalents could be bands of pupil progress at key stages along with post-16 and post-18 destinations. This would remain the same for the next decade, irrespective of structure or organisation or government. The progress ‘ finishing line’ would be the same for all but the way in which it was reached would be influenced by context.

Accountability for delivery would be firmly lodged with the profession. By this I do not mean the rhetoric of school autonomy, promoted over the past decade and which Andy Hargreaves, a respected academic in the field of school improvement, refers to here:

“School autonomy is deceptive. It might give school owners and school leaders more autonomy over budgets and staffing decisions, but individual owners can be just as tyrannical as centralised bureaucracies.” Andy Hargreaves, RSA Journal Issue 1 2016

The autonomy to which I refer is that version which was being argued for more than half a century ago by a leading English educationalist at the time, John Vaizey.

‘It seems … the height of absurdity to give the teacher the power to teach many children the difference between right and wrong, truth and untruth, seemly and unseemly behaviour, while at the same time we deny him (sic) the authority to … plan the provision for education in his (sic) area except in a largely advisory capacity.” Britain in the Sixties. Education for tomorrow

In his book Vaizey is not arguing to “let a thousand flowers bloom”. Students of history know how badly the original ended. Nor would any of us want to see chaotic and dysfunctional schools appear, such as the infamous William Tyndale Junior School in Islington.

What Vaizey proposes is that education should have a similar degree of autonomy as that which the field of medicine had previously argued for and won.

The argument made by Vaizey all those years ago never found traction in the way he proposed. In 2010 however, the DFE’s Teaching Schools Policy appeared to resurrect the notion when it   explicitly used Teaching Hospitals as the model for the development of teacher training and development.

Observers might be forgiven for thinking that, by implication, the policy could lead to the degree of autonomy that Vaizey had been arguing for.

Doctors, through the GMC, have a degree of professional autonomy that teachers can only dream about. They are subject to regulators, of course, such as the Care Quality Commission and the   the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), which provides “guidance, advice, quality standards and information” but is “operationally independent of Government”. And while these regulate they do not dilute professional autonomy.

Isn’t it ironic that the profession used as a model for improving the quality of teaching operates with a degree of accountability never experienced by teachers. The experience of medicine demonstrates moreover that mature professional practice and regulation can exist side by side.

I think a reminder of the above is timely as a new HMCI makes ready to take up the post.

Two theories: the key to Team GB’s success is as a result of directly linking resource to agreed priorities which remained unchanged for a sensible period of time; and the Teaching School policy was informed by Teaching Hospitals.,

If we accept those two statements, isn’t it logical to increase autonomy for teachers? Perhaps then Education GB could become truly world class.

Kathy August began teaching in an inner city Manchester Girls comprehensive in 1975, taking her first Headship in 1988. Between then and 2003 when she became Principal of Manchester Academy in Moss Side, described as the most difficult City Academies in the country, she had a second Headship, was Director of Education in two LEAs, and worked as a Senior Adviser in the DFE. In 2014 she became a DBE.

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