Realise our ambition
ASCL’s project to draw Aup a blueprint for a self-improving, school-led system is well underway. Expand
ASCL’s project to draw Aup a blueprint for a self-improving, school-led system is well underway.
Since the launch of our inquiry in June, many of you have engaged with our consultation questions. ASCL Council, the internal working group consisting of ASCL staff and elected officers, and an external reference group have begun to consider the issues.
We have also held two extremely productive roundtable discussions: one in the Department for Education (DfE) with the then-Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, Schools Minister David Laws, the Permanent Secretary and senior offi cials; the other with the Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt and his Labour Party colleagues. We will continue these discussions with the new Secretary of State Nicky Morgan, who has already said that she is keen to engage with ASCL. Fringe events at each of the party conferences are also taking place.
This topic is of vital importance to ASCL members. Since mid-2010, when David Hargreaves published the first of his influential think pieces on a self-improving system, we have been talking about it. In November that year the White Paper The Importance of Teaching, said: ‘The primary responsibility for improvement rests with our schools . . . Our aim should be to create a school system that is self-improving.’
This direction of travel began well before the last general election and is now embedded in coalition policy. Although the detailed approaches of each of the parties may differ, the commitment to a school-led system is shared across the three main political parties.
This degree of political consensus and the equally strong appetite among the leaders of our schools and colleges to make full use of the benefits of devolved decision making to take our education system forward is a powerful combination. However, if this system is to be genuinely school-led, the responsibility lies with us to shape it.
As with all exciting opportunities, there are benefi ts and risks. Some of the benefits may include:
- the opportunity for the profession to genuinely lead the education system, building on the early ‘green shoots’, such as teaching schools, NLEs and SCITTS, towards a culture of collective endeavour with all school leaders stepping up to take forward a transformation agenda
- a clear delineation of the responsibilities of government, which would be required to put in place the conditions to enable a school-led system to flourish, rather than seeking to micro-manage it; these may include: fair, sufficient and equitable per-pupil funding; a rigorous framework of standards in outcomes and public accountability; and effective statistical modelling of the numbers of teachers needed in each sector and region prior to the allocation of funding to teacher training providers
- the development of an inspection system that is proportionate and underpinned by well-established and highly regarded training programmes for inspectors, many of whom are school leaders; this could lead to a significant move towards self-regulation and the profession taking ownership of its own standards, enabling school leaders to be agents of their own accountability
- the responsibility for professional development to be owned by the profession and supported by a College of Teaching that is entirely independent of government
But while many may welcome these freedoms, there are also a number of major hurdles to overcome on the way.
The move to a school-led system is a cultural change of a magnitude that will be underestimated at our peril. Progress towards a genuinely ‘mature’ school-led system throughout the country will take time. The risks need to be addressed in our emerging plans and as leaders it will be our responsibility to offer solutions to the potential problems we identify.
Risks and challenges
The biggest risk of all is that the profession of school and college leaders would not be ready to embrace the challenge. I have written before about the large numbers of ‘constrained’ schools that struggle, for perfectly understandable reasons, to do anything beyond coping with the very significant challenges that they face on a daily basis.
We must be realistic about the capacity that individual schools have to play a part in taking the system forward beyond their school gates and recognise that school leaders will need to prioritise. We also need to ensure that high-quality support for these schools is universally available and help them to recruit and retain the high-quality staff they need.
Another risk is that the system we seek to develop is driven by provider rather than consumer interest. We must never lose sight of the purpose of this development, which is to help us, as the leaders of our schools and colleges throughout the country, to enable all young people to have access to the best quality education.
This must not be about institutional interests or ‘takeover bids’ by self-interested cartels; nor can it be about ambitious individuals promoting their own interests at the expense of students.Whatever systems or structures are introduced in any particular context, the driving force behind those decisions must be about the impact they will have on the outcomes of students.
This, of course, raises questions about the checks and balances that will need to be in place, including a robust regulatory framework. We have already seen very clearly in recent months the potential pitfalls of poor governance and inadequate financial control.
As a professional association often having to deal with the aftermath of such failings, this can be disastrous for the careers of those in leadership positions. Equally, the failure of a school is a disaster for the young people who are affected.
In designing such a school-led system we must therefore give careful consideration to the so-called ‘middle-tier structures’, such as the emerging roles of the regional schools commissioners, the regional Ofsted directors and the local authorities that still carry very significant educational responsibilities. We will need to decide what accountability, inspection and powers of intervention need to look like in a school-led system.
A key task will be to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality educational provision. Achieving a balance in the potentially tense relationship between competition and collaboration will be essential so that all young people, including the most vulnerable and often challenging young people and those with special educational needs (SEN), are given a chance. All school leaders will need to rise to that challenge.
Finally, there is the challenge that only the government can address, namely that of letting go. It is easy to talk about a school-led system but much more difficult to have the confidence and trust to step back and let this ambitious vision become a reality.
Things will inevitably go wrong on the way. As on any journey, lessons will have to be learnt and those who wish to return to a more centralised, top-down, low-trust model will no doubt throw the first stones.
That is why the theme chosen by this year’s ASCL President, Peter Kent, of ‘Trust to Transform’ is so inspired. In the run-up to next May’s election, ASCL will be testing the commitment of each of the political parties to rise to this challenge.
We will be exploring this topic further in our forthcoming round of information conferences and publishing the draft blueprint for consultation shortly. Please send us your thoughts and responses by emailing email@example.com and discussing this with your Council representatives (see online for details of who your ASCL Council representatives are: www.ascl.org.uk/councilreps). Your ideas, suggestions and concerns are of vital importance in this process.
For more information see:
- the ASCL blueprint project: www.ascl.org.uk/selfimprovingsystem
- David Hargreaves, 2010, Creating a Self-improving School System, National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services, http://tinyurl.com/mxnpfto
- Department for Education (DfE), 2010, The Importance of Teaching: The schools white paper 2010, http://tinyurl.com/lxdqomw
Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary