In an global era of mass communication, cultural references often fail to provoke a common reaction and fall flat. I tweeted a reference from my younger days into a recent exchange between Jane Smith and David Didau and achieved little beyond showing my age. I was surprised therefore to be in a meeting with head teachers discussing the latest Birmingham education sound bite “No more heroes” which is a reference to a song from 36 years ago, returning me once more to my youth.
On one level, I think the “no more heroes” message being put out in Birmingham is useful. The era of the superhead reflects a belief in the importance of individuals which has led some to fall for their own propaganda. The theory of leadership based character traits is only used because it suits the Treasury to pretend one person can turn around a school. It is the cheapest school improvement theory going. In reality, effective head teachers distribute leadership to transform cultures and practices over time. Having said that, the “no more heroes” mantra is more about the City than schools. The message relates to Tim Brighouse’s reign as Cheif Education Officer in the 90s which many teachers view as heroic. He single handedly raised the morale of staff, parents and pupils. He set out a guarantee which spoke to a wider, deeper curriculum than the core subjects. The message for Birmingham today is that there is no Tim Brighouse coming along to rebuild the local education system. I am comfortable with that because there are enough people in schools and classrooms who are striving to transform young people’s lives not to need a figurehead. The pedagogy in many classrooms is outstanding particularly in the inner city. It remains a great city in which to live with a diverse cultural scene. It is a learning city with 4 separate universities, a university college and a musical conservatoire . However, it would be naive to think that the future for education is not going to be an uphill struggle. Recruitment into city schools has been hit hard by the relentless negativity of politicians, a bankrupt council and the lack of applications to teacher training courses. The supply problems are undermining children’s learning and for that reason alone, now is a time when a hero to speak up for the City would be welcome.
Later on yesterday, I was privileged to attend a celebration for my colleague Professor Margaret Clark who has recently won the prestigious UKLA Book of the Year Award for “Learning to be Literate”. It is unhealthy to idolise colleagues but Margaret is a remarkable academic who has studied how children learn to read over a long career and is able to forensically take apart the evidence base in order to promote an approach that is balanced and centred. She asks the awkward questions and undercovers answers that others would rather left unsaid. At the Select Committee hearings over the Winter, she opened the eyes of a number of politicians to the lack of credibility in the phonics check and the profiteering of publishers. Such is the importance of her current work, her many past achievements are a backdrop rather than the focus when people discuss her. Neither Margaret nor her colleagues speak of the fact that she was the first ever female Professor at Birmingham University because there is too much at stake in the here and now. Yesterday evening the room was full of her peers. They were a remarkable group of people from different walks of life who shared Margaret’s passions. Every conversation I had showed the extent to which people knew and cared about the issues affecting their grandchildren’s generation, particularly their education. Here was a room full of “heroes” whose experiences enable them to dissect and discuss the shortcomings of policy and practice. At this time, politicians may choose to ignore their awkward pedagogical truths but the evidence base they represent has far greater depth than any random controlled test or publisher’s claim.
Professor Margaret Clark is giving a public lecture on reading at Newman University on 16th June.