The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Liz Worthen

‘Because you care, you can pull it off’: Lord Blunkett at the MATs Summit 2016

Grammar schools, career pathways, dealing with controversy and creating change: David Blunkett reflects on the current landscape for leaders in education.

One of the highlights of the Optimus Education MATs Summit was hearing Lord Blunkett in conversation with Laura McInerney, editor of Schools Week and the conference chair.

Read about my memorable moments from the interview, or click below to listen to the full recording (or download and save for later).

‘A highly educated, cutting edge nation’

The topic of Brexit couldn’t be ignored entirely. Leaving the European Union doesn’t mean that we can ignore globalisation, suggested David Blunkett, and the need for a ‘highly educated, cutting edge nation’ is more pressing than ever.

Do we want an education system that takes us back to the 1950s, or are we looking ahead to 2025?

Grammars vs gifted and talented

David’s question was a neat segue into another contentious topic: grammar schools. He avoided lengthy comment on the current consultation, but suggested that a preferable solution would be to reinvigorate the gifted and talented programme which formed part of the Excellence in Cities and London Challenge initiatives (see my previous post on the changing world of gifted and talented for some backstory).

‘It’s perfectly feasible to have a gifted and talented programme in every school’ commented David – as long as there is appropriate investment and sharing of practice.

From isolation to collaboration

David talked about the need for sharing between teachers, between schools, and between MATs. Having moved away from schools working in isolation, we don’t want fears around competition to take things backwards. (The need for trusts to move from competition to collaboration was a recurring theme over the summit and makes a lot of sense. After all, as one delegate pointed out to me, it’s all tax payers' money and we should be making the best use of it.)

Career pathways

Being in the world of MATs shouldn’t mean that the only career pathway for talented and ambitious teachers is to become CEOs.

How do we keep the best teachers in the classroom? Different career routes are needed to suit the variety of needs and skills in the profession.

Again this echoed comments I’d heard from other speakers and in conversations over the summit. Just as being an excellent teacher doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a great team manager or headteacher, so being an outstanding head doesn’t always mean you’re cut out to be CEO. And that’s ok…

A dangerous moment for the education service?

…Although there is a risk that we don’t currently have the right talents and skills in the system to support MATs and to hold them to account.

David raised the issue of the number of regional school commissioners (RSCs): currently there are eight RSCs, each covering a large area of territory. Surely that’s not enough to oversee the 4,500+ academies in England? But what’s the size of the RSC talent pool? Do we have people with the right credentials and calibre for the role?

Recruitment challenges

It’s not just RSCs that are in short supply. Teacher recruitment is one of the biggest challenges facing schools and academies at the moment. David suggested that the best place to focus energies is on keeping teachers in the system, through support and professional development, rather than allowing them to be ‘knocked about and rubbished’. For politicians it may be part of the job, but it shouldn’t be for teachers.

A little known fact

Estelle Morris is widely known as the only Secretary of State for Education to have been a practicing teacher. Through Laura’s questions, we found out that David Blunkett qualified as an FE teacher and taught in the sector for several years before his political career overtook the day job.

In fact David had wanted to be a teacher since the age of 14, but it was only after six years of evening classes and day release from work that he gained the qualifications to get him onto a degree course.

‘I didn’t provoke them deliberately’

As Secretary of State for Education and Employment (1997-2001), David’s drive for education reforms such as the literacy and numeracy strategies incurred the wrath of the teaching unions, vocally expressed at the NUT conference of 1999 with boos and heckles.

Apparently Tony Blair applauded this turn of events, believing that being seen to tackle the unions would win support from parents, while for David, the stress caused by these confrontations took its toll on his health.

What advice would David have for leaders of MATs who find themselves in the middle of a media storm? ‘First, take a deep breath.’ Secondly, get advice from wise and experienced people. And thirdly, be prepared with a response. In the digital age you can’t expect news outlets to wait two days for your comment on a story. They’ll expect an answer to their call or email in 20 minutes.

Resilience and embedding change

Time can give a different perspective on things. David reflected that while the process of change can be hugely stressful, you may look back and think that you didn’t move fast enough.

'Embedding sustainable change is the biggest challenge'.

With gimmicks and initiatives in abundance in education, it’s hard to know the right thing to focus on.

However, knowing what to do and being confident in that knowledge is the key to resilience – that much-needed ingredient for those in leadership roles and other walks of life.

Coming back to the children

Lord Blunkett’s final advice to leaders in education was to take account of the changing world, adapt, and to keep in mind their core purpose of growing young people into citizens. ‘Keep coming back to the children, and you will get it right. Because you care, you can pull it off.’

I’m not sure how far the previous night’s partying affected the mood of the room, but it seemed like a pretty emotional round of applause that rounded off the conversation. A memorable moment indeed!

Want to get the full experience? Listen to Laura's introduction and conversation with David Blunkett via the link below, or download and save for later


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