Not so ordinary voice calls for fundamental reform of education governance.

John Mountford's picture
The campaign at has been calling for an end to the disastrous historic situation in the UK under which party politicians constantly redirect education governance through an endless succession of short-term structural reforms to the service. Over the more recent past, the political tinkering with education has also involved pedagogical considerations, leaving teachers with serious challenges to their professionalism.

As I have consistently pointed out, this is counter to the affirmation by all the political parties that they have at heart the long-term interests of our young people, the strength and independence of the profession and the capacity of our system to 'out-perform' the competition on the international stage.

It seems there are less ordinary voices than my own finally making it clear that the political manipulation of our education system is harmful and is in need of reform. In a recent speech, Sir David Bell, former Ofsted chief, made the following remarks:


"Political "firefighting" and shaping policy around electoral cycles has a destructive impact, says Sir David.


It is a "ridiculous situation" for school curriculums to be based on "ministerial whims", he says."

He makes it clear that "constant political interference and policy changes are barriers to raising standards in school." So why are we not having a national debate about this problem, especially in the run-up to the general election?

I would take issue with just one point made in the BBC report, where Sir David said, "Ministers need to take a more grown-up view of policy - not cut their noses off to spite their own faces." It is the whole of the political elite in this country that needs to take a more grown-up view of their responsibility to create an environment in which long-term aims and priorities can be addressed, and now is the time to begin that difficult journey.
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mistemina's picture
Sat, 10/01/2015 - 14:12

As a School Governor, I welcome Sir David's call to de-politise UK Education.
Time to end the cycle of short-term (short-sighted?) structural reforms, ideological and political tinkering.
I know teachers and SLT at my school would appreciate a rest from the constant changes. We need to give staff time and a fighting chance to educate children, not keep re-inventing the wheel.

If politicians want to interfere and want to be seen playing the popular 'radical and tough' card, by all means please address the residual decay that exists within the system. Tidy up the inequalities, the moneys squandered on the elite, Private education access, etc.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 10/01/2015 - 14:22

David Laws has also highlighted the damage incurred through political interference in education:

See "David Laws says 'politicians' whims' are harming schools" at

There was also the push by the Pearson Group earlier in the year although I believe that this was substantially undermined by (a) an imbalance via a heavy emphasis on the employers perspective and (b) largely wanting to maintain the status quo regarding qualifications (no surprises there).

I can only hope that the positions adopted by Laws and Bell give rise to a movement for major - if not radical - change to education policy in England.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 10/01/2015 - 23:46

You may recall, Andy, I took a real interest in the report produced by Pearson last year (Making Education Work) under the chairmanship of Professor Sir Roy Anderson.

You are quite right that it was heavily biased from the employers perspective, very much seeing the primary function of education as that of providing suitable candidates for employment but offering no solution to the challenge of creating real jobs in a changing environment. Despite my attempts to reach the good professor through a contact at Pearson, I never had any kind of reply.

At various stages in the Ordinary Voices campaign, I have appealed to some pretty big hitters in education academia to sign up but have met with only a stony silence (not even the most feeble attack on my proposals to date!). This puzzles me. I only reached out to those who consistently make public their views on the imbalance of power in favour of the political elite in relation to education reform. Maybe the impending election, with the very real threat of a hung parliament, will convince some that education is far too important to be left in the hands of the party(ies) in power. I make no bones about it, it is time the education establishment in close collaboration with parents and other interested parties made the reform of education governance a top priority.

I have just read about a recent meeting between Tristram Hunt and Debra Kidd (Love Learning) and others,

It makes for interesting reading. I am preparing a detailed response and will provide another link to this when it is completed. Suffice it to say at this point (and it will not surprise anyone) Tristram Hunt and David Laws seem super keen to 'impress' voters with their vision for a future for education developed with much less political interference. To which I say, 'fine words butter no parsnips'. We have been here before which is why I insist that unless and until we take politics out of the direct governance of education, NOTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE.

Our young people deserve more substance than any politicians pre-election babbling can offer because they are the ones who stand to lose more than anyone else if we don't seize the opportunity to safeguard their opportunities for a better, more stable education.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 13:28

The 1988 Education Act will eventually have to be repealed or
drastically reformed. This current period of what I call ‘Educational
Lysenkoism’ (after the ideological Soviet theory of agriculture that
became the compulsory orthodoxy under Stalin) will eventually be
consigned to history as an essential lesson in how not to run a
national education system.

This is not going to happen easily or quickly but a start can be
made. The first essential step is to challenge the fallacy of the denial
of the role of cognitive ability in predicting and evaluating
educational outcomes.

The second is to promote the design of the
curriculum for the cognitive growth of individual pupils, not the
accumulation of high stakes, target-related qualifications for the

The centrally controlled initiative roll-outs of New Labour
rarely achieved the desired outcome and the free market based
Academy and Free School project promoted by the Conservative led
government is unlikely to be any more successful.

So long as there are competitive school league tables driven by high stakes testing
the education system will always be blighted and corrupted by
perverse unintended outcomes arising from behaviourist incentives.
Effective learning and national cognitive growth (a positive Flynn
Effect) requires the liberation and encouragement of teachers and
schools to investigate, discuss, devise and apply approaches
designed to secure cognitive development at classroom and
individual pupil level.

Local Education Authorities should be re-established, liberated,
educated, empowered and encouraged to promote cognitively
stimulating learning in all their schools. The few remaining ex-LEA Education Department staff with knowledge and experience that have survived the era of ‘Children’s Services’ reorganisation and the current cull of public sector
employees should be attached to local school consortia to facilitate
such shared work with more such experts trained and recruited.

The disbanding of the Academies and Free School Division of the DfE
would result in a multi £billion saving to the taxpayer that could be
redirected for support of locally managed school improvement
within a reformed culture.

University Schools of Education should again take a leading role
informed by truly independent research. A start could also at last be made on restoring the sadly lost professionalism of teachers, which must be rooted in an
appropriate degree of peer moderated classroom autonomy with regard to teaching methods, rather than ‘operative’ type ‘delivery’ of externally imposed initiatives.

A step by step way forward

Evolution is better than imposed revolution. Step by step structural
change is possible in the English education system. Here are my
suggestions for the stages. It is very important that each relatively small
step itself represents a significant improvement on what went before. This
replaces ideology with pragmatism and promotes a culture of apolitical
professional ownership of the system.

1. Reform Ofsted by replacing it with an independent, directly employed
HMI answerable directly to parliament (as Ofsted once falsely claimed it

2. Reform local government by recreating LEAs and Education
Committees. A by-product would be the abolition of ‘Cabinet’ government
so re-democratising and reinvigorating Local Government. At the same
time, promote the creation of unitary LAs where possible especially in
urban areas.

3. Give the new LEAs regulatory power and responsibility over the
admissions policies of all the schools in their area, including Academies
and Free Schools, so as to promote balanced, all ability intakes. Something
quite close to this has already come about in Hackney through voluntary
agreements. The Hackney model is a good one. It is especially appropriate
for urban areas.

4. Produce a national funding formula for all schools, Academies, Free
Schools and LEA schools alike.

5. Reform the powers and constitution of the governing bodies of all
schools including Academies and Free schools with places reserved for
elected teachers parents and local councillors, with safeguards created to
stop organised groups gaining power through infiltration to promote narrow
sectarian or religious objectives.

6. Require all schools to produce an annual prospectus to a specified
template that includes the curriculum, behaviour and other policies,
including full exam results in the subject by subject, number of passes at
each grade format, that used to be required. Cease the publication of
aggregated attainments (eg %5+A*-Cs or anything that may replace it) and
so abolish school league tables. Abolish all general floor targets for

7. Abolish KS2 SATs to be replaced by CATs taken in Y6 alongside
other specific diagnostic, standardised assessments. DfE to continue to
publish on the internet sound and valid technical data that it expects LEAs
to use for the local inspections of all schools in its area.

8. HMI to conduct periodic inspections of all schools alongside LEA
inspectors. LEA inspectors to provide CPD and school support for all
schools (including Academies and Free Schools) with the help of HMI when

9. HMI to inspect LEAs and Academy/Free School chains, all on the
same basis.

10. Require parents’ referenda on the governance and control of
Academy and Free schools if a threshold proportion of parents sign a
petition according to a standard template. This would give local
communities the democratic power to restore failing Academies to LEA

11. Create a permanent National Educational Commission with a
carefully designed constitution with academic, professional and political
appointments on a non-party basis to advise all forthcoming governments
on education policy, and so take our schools out of politics.

The preceding is all taken from my new book, 'Learning Matters' now available on Amazon. Not everyone will agree with all of it so a debate needs to take place. Could this recent intervention of Sir David Bell be the start of this national debate?

It may seem far too radical ever to come about. But it is a 'step by step' approach. It does not all have to be done at once. Every small step is a gain and the gains can accumulate. In this sense it is an 'evolutionary' not a revolutionary approach.

It actually quite mainstream in the English professional world of education. There are many parallels with the widely welcomed and acclaimed recent proposals of the NUT.

You can read more on my website (which is still very much a work in progress) at

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 11/01/2015 - 13:30

Sorry, I should have reformatted the paragraphs - I thought the LSN site might do it.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 12/01/2015 - 23:29

Thanks for your comments, Roger. Sorry for the delay in getting back. I am entirely in accord with your views but question whether the evolutionary developments you cite can in fact take place in the existing climate. So many of the changes you are calling for depend on who holds the whip hand, so-to-speak, and the crucial element of timing.

While the governance issue remains as it is, there is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever which party will be in government at any given time and more worryingly, but undemocratically and illogically, who is Secretary of State for Education. As you have consistently maintained, the power accumulated by successive Secretaries of State is staggering and without addressing this directly and making it priority number one to end this, there is no guarantee that evolution can really get under way.

When it comes to reorganising education, your proposals are on the money. You have identified what the elements of the new system should look like and established the importance of continuity of action and clarity of purpose. However, without the stability provided by a properly functioning independent National Education Commission (your step 11), the time needed for evolution to take place cannot be safeguarded. In fact the only possible outcome would spell disaster for yet another generation of young people, more of the same.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 13/01/2015 - 13:46

John - I note the points you make and recognise their validity. However the evolutionary principle that I advocate is quite different to the governmental interference and imposed 'revolutions' that have gone before. Its great power is that a great many, if not all of the steps outlined in my list, are independent of each other. This means that any of the proposals stands alone as bringing benefits. It does not all need to happen at once. This references the most important meaning of 'evolutionary'. This is not so much 'slow' rather than 'fast' change, but that each small change brings benefits in its own right. This implies no chaos, as one whole system and approach is substituted for another. We have certainly seen far too much of the converse and not just in education. The Coalition Government NHS 'reforms' are an example. There are many others.

There is no doubt about the power of the evolutionary principle to bring about huge changes though the gradual aggregation of small changes, each of which is beneficial in a small way. Dawkins' 'The Blind Watchmaker' explains this principle brilliantly. The astonishing visual acuity of a Peregrine Falcon started out millions of years ago as a small patch of light sensitive skin on the body of a much simpler form of life.

I remember as a young teenager reading a flyer pushed through the letterbox from the Jehovah's Witnesses ridiculing Darwinian Natural Selection with the argument that 'half of wing' would be of no use to a bird, so how could flight have evolved in the way set out by Darwin? Dawkins answers this with great clarity. All sorts of gliding vertebrates preceded birds and still exist today. Clearly each small change in a wing like structure could convey an advantage for survival so passing on the genes that brought it about.

So what has this got to do with education? Just that the same principle applies to my formula for change. You are right that my step 11 is a very big step for the system to swallow. However my step 1 is readily do-able. In fact it has been done already by the Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt. He made the health service quality regulator, the CQC, independent of government. At a stroke this potentially raises standards and improves patient safety because CQC judgements of hospitals and recommendations for improvement cannot be 'sat on' by the Department of Health if the government does not like the implications. After step 1 is in place, step 11 is much less of a mouthful.

The parallels for education and your 'Alternative Voices' campaign are powerful and clear. Tristram Hunt can propose making OfSTED independent of government (my step 1). HMI would then be expected to comment freely on positive and negative features of school organisation and curriculum without fear of ideological veto from the government. Clearly OfSTED would have to be very well informed, and its advice soundly based on genuinely independent evidence for it to take on this challenge.

Another parallel with the NHS is the new statutory 'Duty of Candour' upon clinicians and hospital Trusts to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to patients and investigators in relation to 'untoward' incidents. This is moving the NHS towards the 'no blame'- 'no complaint' self regulating culture of the airline, shipping and nuclear industries. This is not a million miles away from Tristram Hunt's 'Hippocratic Oath' for teachers and school managers that was widely ridiculed. Such a legal framework would surely prevent the dubious practices that Janet Downs reveals to such good effect all too frequently.

These ideas can be applied to all my stages. They are worth doing in their own right, Educational evolution would not need millions of years, but it could still usefully span more than one parliament/government as you propose.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 13/01/2015 - 17:19

I accept the evolutionary principle underpinning the proposed development of your stages, Roger. Equally, I am in absolutely no doubt that each of your proposals "are worth doing in their own right". Nonetheless, I hold to the notion that the education environment, as with the natural environment, has to be fit to enable evolution to take place.

Useful adaptations can be easily eradicated if something changes to prevent them becoming embedded in the genome. So too with so many potentially worthwhile developments in education. To quote one of your examples earlier, "Effective learning and national cognitive growth (a positive Flynn Effect) requires the liberation and encouragement of teachers and schools to investigate, discuss, devise and apply approaches designed to secure cognitive development at classroom and individual pupil level." There are two impediments to this, as you might concede. First, and foremost teachers have to accept the argument about the centrality of cognitive growth to deep learning, and many may not without the input you call for from a collaborative effort between teacher trainers and reformed LEAs. I see this as highly doable. Second, the capacity of the political party in power to change priorities at will offers no guarantee that there would not still be a shifting landscape. To my way of looking at it, this remains the greatest barrier to the evolution of our education system and is not so doable.

I believe in our democracy, but if it is to survive in our changing world, it has to adapt. I also believe that will take longer to come about than the changes called for by Ordinary Voices in support of a more suitable environment to enable education to evolve as you propose.

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