May 2012

The know zone

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    With the use of social network sites becoming a daily ritual for the vast majority of us, Richard Bird explains why personal photographs, inappropriate comments and hackers are still causing problems for staff in schools and colleges. More
  • Tough love
    Jo Shuter CBE is headteacher of Quintin Kynaston School, a community academy in London. She co-founded QK House, a charity for homeless sixth formers at the school. More
  • Great rewards
    The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers grants to help schools support the most disadvantaged children. More
  • A partnership to support school improvement
    Capita SIMS has renewed its partnership with ASCL for the next three years, meaning that members will continue to have access to great deals on SIMS support. More
  • Same difference?
    Now that the DfE has published the final list of vocational equivalencies, is it a step backwards, a step too far or just right? More importantly, what effect will it have on curriculum pathways or options in schools and colleges? ASCL members share their views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Advice on careers advisers and School behaviour policies More
  • Decisive deliberations
    As the March Council meeting took place a few weeks before ASCL Annual Conference 2012, government messages about the education system, as well as recently announced proposals to change school inspection, were high on the agenda. More
  • A brighter forecast?
    In his speech to delegates at ASCL’s Annual Conference in March, Brian Lightman challenged members not to be sucked into the splenetic tornado of negativity coming from some corners of government and the media. In this excerpt from his speech, he lays down the challenge. More
  • You can’t win...
    Leading a school is nothing compared to coaching an under 8s football team, although the similarities are striking. More
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In his speech to delegates at ASCL’s Annual Conference in March, Brian Lightman challenged members not to be sucked into the splenetic tornado of negativity coming from some corners of government and the media. In this excerpt from his speech, he lays down the challenge.

A brighter forecast?

We look to the government for inspirational leadership of education, living up to its promise of creating a high-status profession. Our business as teachers and leaders is motivation, and that’s made so much harder by sniping and demotivating sound bites. The fact is that neither our reason for doing what we do nor our commitment to the young people we educate has changed. Those noble aspirations are the true constants that will outlive any government’s policies or initiatives.

School and college leaders have an awesome responsibility, which is also an enormous opportunity, to seize back the agenda for our education system. By doing so we will lead education into a period in which governments, and perhaps even chief inspectors, will hold up their heads in pride and celebrate our excellence in the national and international arena; a period in which we, the leaders of schools and colleges, have led our system into confidence.

It’s good to have opinions, but have you noticed how many policies are based on the premise of ‘I think’?

‘I think policies’ are a characteristic of the current landscape. They are based on ideology, assertion and, frequently, policy makers’ experience of their own school days, or worse, an anecdote of a friend’s friend’s child’s experience. ‘I think policies’ are informed by political expediency and point-scoring:

  • I think everyone should study history/ geography/Latin etc.
  • I think children should sit in rows.
  • I think didactic teaching is best.
  • I think every lesson should be divided up into three, five, seven, 49 parts.
  • I think modular is good and linear bad.
  • I think the school day should be longer/shorter/the same.
  • I think academies are the answer.
  • I think free schools are the answer...
    and so it continues.

‘I think policies’ are normally communicated to the profession through certain newspapers or The Andrew Marr Show.

They are rarely informed by fact or professional experience or expertise and they are frequently based on selective interpretation of data such as the PISA results or Ofsted grades.

They undermine the government’s stated commitment to a high-status profession.

They turn the profession into piggy in the middle with volley after volley of hastily-hatched new ideas being fired over our heads from all directions.

And they create a constrained service thrown into a head-spinning whirl, as we flail about in an attempt to comply and meet the latest maddening batch of targets.

In a confident system we would hear the phrase ‘We know’ instead.

‘We know’ policies are based on robust, incontrovertible evidence. They are based on the whole picture and not selective cherry-picking. They are based on feedback from a trusted, high status profession. In such a world policy makers would be working with the profession and academics to debate the evidence and all of the profession would willingly engage, certain that the body of knowledge underpinning it would outlast any political whims.

ASCL members have a lot to off er towards ‘we know’ policies:

  • We know that there is no one ‘right’ teaching style.
  • We know that many schools of all types have made spectacular progress in raising standards and that we can all learn from this.
  • We know that you don’t only judge the quality of education in schools by what you can display on an Excel spreadsheet downloaded from the DfE website.
  • We know that the best practice in assessment uses a combination of formative, diagnostic and summative tools in the classroom and the examination room.
  • We know that some carefully chosen vocational courses taught in schools are powerful components of a broad and balanced curriculum.
  • We know that employability skills are not just developed by some kind of osmosis.
  • We know that a focus on Ebacc subjects will not be the answer for all pupils.
  • We know... and there has never been a time when it has been more important for us to say so and utterly reject the insulting suggestion that any of us finds mediocrity acceptable or is an apologist for it.

And what I am saying is not only directed at the government. It applies to politicians across the spectrum and it applies to all of those people who influence policies through the various pressure groups and think tanks.

Seize the agenda

The task of leading our system into confidence brings responsibilities, great opportunities and challenges for all of us. For those of us in leadership positions – in schools and colleges as well as in system leadership roles:

  • We have to seize the agenda over the curriculum and learning. We know best and must have the confidence to do what we know is right.
  • We have to rise to the challenge the government says it has given us and plan our curriculum as we see fit.
  • We have to challenge ‘I think’ policies, assertively and confidently replacing them with ‘We know’ policies which we own, knowing that we will rightly be held accountable for what our students achieve.
  • We have to make the professional development of our staff the highest priority so that we are the ones who raise the bar ourselves rather than allowing expectations to be imposed upon us.
  • We have to create an ethos in which we have confidence in each other, celebrating and sharing the best practice as we continue to refuse to accept excuses for underachievement and underperformance.
  • We need to do everything we can to help any school that feels unable to lift those constraints and share responsibility for helping them through.
  • We need to hold the Secretary of State to his word and use the freedoms he has said he is giving us even in constrained schools where this is so much more of a challenge.

For those who are engaged at national level in the development and implementation of policy now is the time.

  • Time to break the ‘us and them culture’ and switch to the first person plural to share responsibility.
  • Time to stick to the big picture of setting out the overall policy aims.
  • Time to halt the tornado of announcements and let us get on with the important work we have been tasked with.
  • Time to trust us and prove that the commitment to create a high-status profession is genuine.
  • Time to stop abusing the accountability system turning it into a stick to lever professionals into compliance.
  • Time to recognise and celebrate every step our country makes towards a better education service. Where we have setbacks, sit down with us so that together we can work out a solution.

Our message to government is this: you might not believe it yet but we understand what you want and share your high aspirations.

We are full of ideas and experience which will help us all to achieve this. But first we need clarity and much better communication and far less interference. And we need to be rid of the corrosive culture of sneering and denigrating us. If you give us that, then our part of the bargain is 100% commitment. We will not accept second best.

We believe we can make our education service world class. We are the people who can do this.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary