Steve Baker, recently-retired former principal of Lipson Co-operative Academy, spent 28 years as a school leader after becoming head of humanities in a Lancashire school in 1988. Here, in this two-part interview, he reflects on his career, how the education world has changed in this country, and the trials and joys of school leadership.
Under the then New Labour government, Steve Baker was part of the growth of the specialist school system – Lipson Co-operative Academy was an arts college, and still delivers a wide range of arts as well as sports activities. Now an academy, Lipson describes itself as a faith neutral value-driven school which is deeply committed to the values and principles of the International Co-operative Alliance.
“It was wonderful to be a head at that time,” says Steve. After the dour education scene in the 1970s, suddenly “we had opportunity to do things. There was an entrepreneurial, can-do mentality, not least in the SSAT – and I’m glad to see that back again in SSAT. I was part of the original Vision 2020 group (when 2020 was a long way off). It reminded me of Churchill’s comment, ‘the most powerful people in the land are headteachers’.” Now, by contrast, heads are beholden to chief executives, not to mention policymakers, administrators and Ofsted.
“Those were the days school leaders would die for. You felt you could achieve anything, do anything. Children’s achievement just went up and up.” (He doesn’t accept, as posited by some politicians, that rising school results were down to lowering expectations and standards.)
Improvements from personalising learning
The introduction of personalising learning* led to widespread school improvement and “enabled people in their droves to access academic success, especially in inner cities. Children from deprived backgrounds could go all the way to university. Lives were transformed, especially in the middle to lower sets.” As a secondary modern in the grammar school area of Plymouth, Lipson has consistently achieved excellent results against national norms despite a much lower than average intake achievement.
An important element of specialist schools, in Steve’s view, was the obligation to invest in supporting their communities and improving community cohesion. “Post-Brexit, that’s something that is really rather brittle at the minute,” he comments. He warmly recalls the approach taken by education secretaries such as David Blunkett and Estelle Morris of that era, which made transformation possible.
Now, however, education in this country is subject to “reductionist political ideology”, with statements and policies consistently implying that teachers and students can improve year on year. “The pace is never good enough for today’s politicians.” They always have a four-year period before the next election, during which they believe they need to see tangible improvements resulting from their policies.
Time frames in the real world
In the real world, however, the time frames for improvement resulting from major change, shown by the Japanese total quality movement and the OECD’s reports on international education, are more like 15-20 years. Finland was a shining example of long term thinking and systematic improvement.
Reductionism is also seen in the way the four 10,000-word tomes of an OECD PISA report, interpreted by government sources, are reduced to one short article in the Daily Mail. (Former education secretary) “Gove was told many times not to misuse statistics,” says Steve. Government summaries often simplify research findings to an extent that is most misleading, for example claiming to discern differences between mid-performing countries when actually “you couldn’t put a tissue paper between them… As Deming said, people will distort the data for their own purposes.”
Steve Baker deplores the over-emphasis on examination results, which “an independent HMI should be challenging.”
Understanding: still the greatest challenge
Asked what the greatest challenge is for a school leader, he maintains for him it is – still, despite his extensive experience – trying to understand the philosophical and pedagogical perspectives on the curriculum. He cites E D Hirsch (“who is actually left of centre, despite being quoted by right-wing politicians; so ignore the headlines”). “His ideas make a difference to students, about the depth of knowledge we are transmitting.” In this context, he also rates Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie – and the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, “one of the positives from this government.”
Summarising, he says “we are, and must be, research focused.” He has taught on a Masters programme for many years, and on management/leadership courses. One of the principles of the cooperative movement which is very relevant to education today is democratic fellowship, which includes cooperative learning and human engagement: “teachers and students alike should listen and understand as well as speak. Feedback in the classroom, where everyone is respected as a voice and treated as an individual, is absolutely crucial.”
That is not to deny that there are times when cooperation and dialogue may not be appropriate, eg when students have to finish a piece of work or take a test in silence.
So “we must make sure we understand democracy in its different forms. Democracy in class should be participative, not representative as in parliamentary democracy.”…
Part two of this interview will be published later this week.
*SSAT members can access over 20 personalising learning publications (with contributions from David Hargreaves, Tim Oates and Sue Williamson) in the member area of the website. Login here.