Do no harm

Roy Blatchford welcomes a legislative programme for government which has little to say about the schools system…

I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing. With a pair of diathermy forceps I coagulate the beautiful and intricate red blood vessels that lie on the brain’s shining surface. I cut into it with a small scalpel and make a hole through which I push with a fine sucker. The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand. All I can see in front of me is matter. Yet I know if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the recovery ward. – Henry Marsh


Memories and dreams as jelly…. – an evocative extract from ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’. Henry Marsh’s captivating account of a life spent inside other people’s skulls is a must-read for any school leader this summer holiday.

You have to be in the right mood, but the book’s key theme captured in the first part of the title resonates as much in education as it does in health. (Marsh’s recently published sequel ‘Admissions’ is equally engaging, especially for anyone contemplating retirement.)

I was an active supporter of the 2010 – 2015 Coalition years: sensible and enabling public policy unfolded, including for schools. This summer a new kind of parliamentary coalition has emerged. Whether it sustains itself or not in its current form, school leaders up and down the country should make the most of the education policy vacuum.

National politicians are unable to do any major policy harm, for fear of losing their jobs. Election manifesto commitments on education from all parties are happily on hold. And I look forward to hearing in the autumn the first major speech of this parliament from Secretary of State Justine Greening. I predict she will start with T-Levels.

So how to fill the void and do some good? My ‘less is more’ recipe, for summer reflection and autumn action, runs as follows.

  1. The NAHT and ASCL should join forces and push hard for the creation of a National Education Service (NES): building a cross-party, cross-nation ambition to establish such a service in England for the coming decades.

As with the NHS*, there should be an independent Board and Chief Executive for the NES, charged with taking some of the harmful short-term politicking out of education. Former NHS Chief Executive Sir David Nicholson observed that the worst enemy of long-term planning and serious progress in the NHS is the electoral cycle.

  1. Unions and professional associations collectively should impress upon central and local government that the 2017 – 2022 era will be remembered as a time when school and college leaders were left to busy themselves with running their institutions effectively, untroubled by novel policy wheezes from the politicians. We have had several years of productive churn. Let the churn settle and be shaped by schools and academies at ‘local’ level.
  2. Quite simply, teacher recruitment and retention will benefit from a period of calm. The DfE, without other diversions, should pour its considerable energies and skills into securing a supply of great graduates for our primary, special and secondary schools.
  3. Experience advising education Ministers tells me that practice shapes policy more often than policy shapes practice. Let the profession embed the curriculum, assessment and examination reforms of recent years, held to account by a wise Ofsted and Ofqual. The profession can make recommendations for gradual change and development, rooted in classroom evidence and students’ experiences.
  4. Whilst disquiet hangs in the air over the implementation of a national system of fair funding, let altruism and self-interest collide. Thus, some of the uneven per pupil allocations between different parts of the country can be ironed out once and for all.

The time is propitious.

A series of desperate events in recent months has fractured the country’s social fabric in some urban areas. Serious news media coverage has been honest and hard-hitting. Much social media and tabloid journalism has been shrill and vacuous.

In a period of national uncertainty and self-questioning, the trusted teaching profession has a unique opportunity. It can move itself, and the many millions of students and families it engages with every day, beyond this volatile climate and lead a spirit of domestic renewal across the country.

A highly influential National Education Service is the vehicle to achieve this prize.


* NHS Board:

Roy Blatchford CBE is Founding Director of the National Education Trust and author of ‘The Restless School’. He was an education adviser to the UK coalition government, 2010-15.


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