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Stuart McLaughlin


I retired in April 2020 after 17 years as a Headteacher, serving four different schools across two local authorities. One thing that remained constant throughout this period was the privilege I felt being a school leader. I deliberately chose to work in challenging schools serving more deprived communities. I was driven by the belief that a high-quality education has the power to transform the life chances of young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.In this paper I reflect on my personal experience of government policy during this period and the impact it had on school leaders. In doing so, we will revisit two underpinning themes that featured throughout my headship career. The first was that education became part of the election battleground with each party developing their own ideas and thinking about the direction of education that, in turn, became policy for the successfully elected party. Successive Secretaries of State had their own view of what state education should look like. I have not always been convinced that all policy was based on educational theory and sometimes wonder if it derived from the minister’s own personal experience of education! Sir Kevan Collins describes this as the ‘Complacency of Certainty’ (2021) where ministers speak with authority on education without any substance or research to back it up. The impact this had on school leaders was to experience a see-saw effect as policies swung one way and then the other as governments and ministers changed. The second underpinning theme was the breakdown in trust between the government and the education profession. It is evident that this lack of trust in the system led to the growth of a command-and-control model whereby schools were compelled to follow government policy.To explore these themes, I will focus on three key areas of government policy that were intended to improve standards and reduce education inequality. First the rise of academisation under Tony Blair’s New Labour that accelerated with the Coalition government under David Cameron. Second the government policies designed to give parents far greater choice whilst also creating competition between schools. To this end, we will explore the two system changes that successive governments utilised to drive this culture of choice and competition starting with the high stakes accountability associated with examination results and then finally, reviewing my experience of the Ofsted process.

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