Home Grown

  • Home Grown

Top down reform – everyone seems sick of it. Whether it is pressure for structural change, prescription about the curriculum or the ever-moving accountability measures, a constant refrain seems to be: Why can’t we have more reform starting with the professionals rather than the politicians?

Maybe that isn’t such an outlandish idea. Almost two years ago I was lucky enough to sit in on, and subsequently report, discussions held by a small group of heads from the maintained, academy and special school sector, including fellow Teach Secondary columnist Vic Goddard.

They had formed themselves into a fledging pressure group out of sheer frustration with the changes to qualifications and assessment being forced on schools. They had the then education secretary Michael Gove’s ill-fated English Baccalaureate Certificates in their sights. But their frustration also bubbled over into anger with what they perceived as ineffective opposition to the coalition’s reforms and the absence of a viable alternative vision. They wanted to see if innovative, bottom up thinking could make an impact on national policy-making.

To cut a long story short the Headteachers’ Roundtable, as they subsequently became known, has gone from strength to strength. Building support through Twitter they started to organise conferences, held consultations on policy ideas and began to formulate policies of their own. They were quickly offered access to both DFE and shadow ministers who are gradually recognising the power of social media to mobilise grass roots opinion.

They now have a manifesto, a wider core group and have helped to lead the way in a wider national conversation about whether we should broaden our exam based assessment system into a baccalaureate qualification, similar to those used in many other countries.

The whole picture

Before Christmas London head teacher Tom Sherrington, blogger, tweeter and architect of the Heads Roundtable own Bacc style qualifications framework, organized a summit, attended by representatives of all the different Bacc models being trialed in the UK alongside three of the leading exam boards, to try and thrash out a way forward.

The meeting, which I also attended, was a reminder of how much more there is to a real baccalaureate than the narrow collection of subjects that grace our current league tables. In most countries that use a baccalaureate, the term refers to a final wrap around qualification, or a ‘grouped’ award that acts as a passport to higher education.

The International Baccalaureate diploma, whose members were represented at the recent conference, goes further. Founded after the Second World War with a view to using education as a route to permanent international peace, it includes academic study, project work and an accredited personal development programme based on “creativity, action and service”.

It is academically tough and may not be surprising that the Swiss charity overseeing the IB diploma is now developing a parallel ‘career-related’ programme. But its ‘learner profile’ goes way beyond the simple acquisition of 8 or more GCSEs and a handful of A levels and includes attributes like caring, risk-taking, open mindedness, reflection and communication.

Pressing for success

The challenges facing the English heads are not insubstantial; how to create something that includes and gives equal status to both academic and vocational qualifications; how to value and measure wider learning and personal character development alongside traditional subjects (especially given our unrelenting league table culture); how to fund and supervise what would inevitably be a more ambitious curriculum if creativity, citizenship, sport and other enrichment activities were to be routinely added to academic routes; how to get widespread support for this sort of reform without risking the sort of political interference that has now become commonplace in English exams. The beauty of the IB is that no individual government can interfere with it.

Can they succeed? One of the delegates at the conference, Professor Ken Spours from the Institute of Education, has been involved with earlier attempts to introduce a wrap around diploma in England, such as the review led by Sir Mike Tomlinson in 2004. He told delegates that that current level of disillusion with narrow exam based accountability means that there will probably never be a better time to build a political and professional consensus around the idea of a real English Bacc.

It is an ambitious project but everyone involved on the day was determined to press on with campaigning and attempting to merge the best of all the existing baccalaureate models [below] into one home grown qualification. If they succeed it could be an example of bottom up reform unprecedented in our school system. Wish them luck.

About the Author

Fiona Millar is a columnist for guardian education and a co-founder of the local schools network. (localschoolsnetwork. org.uk).