January 2011

The know zone

  • Unconditional glove
    Business managers and governors need to be aware of the full extent of responsibility schools and colleges must bear when staff carry out physical tasks, says Richard Bird. More
  • Reform's black mark?
    Will the Coalition’s planned reforms to training, pay and inspection inspire a new generation of outstanding teachers? Unlikely, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Martin Luther King, George Lucas, Steve Forbert, Walt Disney and Thomas Hardy More
  • Into Africa
    Lynne Barr, deputy head of Diss High School in Norfolk, turned to teaching after a short career in accountancy. In 2009, she went to Rwanda with the Leaders in International Development programme for a stint as an education management consultant, and received the full-on celebrity treatment. More
  • Facial recognition
    The National Portrait Gallery has added to its extensive collection of online teaching resources with a new website dissecting what makes a successful exhibition. More
  • Adding value
    The use of technology has become deeply embedded to enhance pupils’ learning, but it also has an important role to play in helping schools deal with much tighter budgets. More
  • Reading between the lines
    Education Secretary Michael Gove has introduced an English Baccalaureate to give greater recognition to ‘traditional’ academic subjects – languages and humanities in particular – as a measure of school success. Is it a retrograde step or a way to re-inject more rigour into judging how a school performs? Leaders share their views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Good in parts
    ASCL’s response to the education white paper dominated discussion at December’s Council meeting, with plenary debate divided into themes led by the committee chairs. On many topics there was strong agreement but on others, such as school improvement partners and provision for excluded pupils, reaction was mixed. More
  • A marathon task
    There are some welcome ideas in the long-awaited schools white paper but, says Brian Lightman, the proposed pace of change is too great. More time should be given for debate before rushing to implementation. More
  • Painful extraction
    Hell hath no fury like a mother in search of justice when she believes her offspring has been attacked in school. But there are two sides to every classroom story, says Christopher Martin. More
Bookmark and Share

There are some welcome ideas in the long-awaited schools white paper but, says Brian Lightman, the proposed pace of change is too great. More time should be given for debate before rushing to implementation.

A marathon task

Since the white paper was published in November, our members have been responding to this wide-ranging statement of policy and the comments have ranged from robust criticism to broad agreement.

They have warmly welcomed the unequivocal statements to reduce bureaucracy, to support school leaders in maintaining good discipline and to empower them to make professional decisions without interference from central government. Few disagree with the document’s emphasis on high quality teaching. There is strong support, too, for the continued use of National and Local Leaders of Education, the emphasis on collaboration and partnership, and the intention to bring greater coherence to CPD as a key to school improvement.

Nevertheless, there is an unease around other proposals which becomes evident when we dissect the three arguments upon which the white paper is based.

Unanswered questions

The white paper says: “The truth is that we are standing still while others race past.” I really worry about a state of affairs in which a change of government requires every education policy that its predecessor was striving to implement to be suddenly thrown into reverse. “Tweaking things at the margins is not an option,” the white paper insists. The problem with that argument is it produces the turmoil of wholesale change every five years.

During the early months of the Coalition we have seen a veritable dash to implement change but there are still big unanswered questions about the detail.

Take the English Bac, for example, which has elicited the largest volume of correspondence from members (see Opinion on page 28). Since the government intends this to be one of the main performance indicators, schools wish to position themselves to do well against it.

But as with all previous performance indicators, which have been roundly criticised by the Coalition and ASCL for driving curriculum choice and creating perverse incentives, this new one is doing the same thing.

Many schools are feeling forced into making rushed changes to their options systems in order to create a pathway which incorporates the English Bac. This means a significant potential increase in the take-up of history and geography at the cost of other humanities subjects and curriculum options.

As ASCL has been concerned about take-up of languages, in one respect we welcome the increased emphasis on it. However, it needs to be planned. There is a real issue of teacher supply and there are implications for the staffing of the rest of the curriculum and the knock-on effects on other subjects.

The mix of subjects in the English Bac will be right for some students. But on the one hand the government is talking about freedom and choice, and on the other we are moving towards a highly prescriptive curriculum which has not been modelled, costed or planned and which is being implemented before schools have had the chance to review their curriculum in the round. Looks like tweaking at the edges to me...

Social mobility

The second argument the white paper makes is: “No country that wishes to be considered world class can afford to allow children from poorer families to fail as a matter of course.”

Who could disagree with this assertion? Or deny that schools have a major part to play in addressing the problem? Every day, school and college leaders live the reality of the white paper statement: “In far too many communities there is a culture of low aspiration that is strongly tied to long-term unemployment.” We agree that “our schools should be engines of social mobility.”

The pupil premium is a fine idea if it genuinely means that the least advantaged pupils will attract additional funding and therefore allow schools to provide additional support. We strongly doubt, however, that this will be the case.

In a context of ‘flat cash’ and a significant cut in post-16 allocations, coupled with the ending of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) and increased university tuition fees, it is going to be incredibly difficult to break that culture of low aspiration.

Discussions about the detail of a national funding formula have yet to begin in earnest. Past experience tells us that, while this is well worth aiming for it is not going to be easy, nor are there any simple solutions to this highly complex issue.

Social mobility in England is not a new problem, nor is it one which previous governments have ignored. Many of you are deeply concerned that the white paper proposals will widen rather than narrow the gap between the least and the most advantaged. As an education system, we need to consider carefully and objectively what has and has not worked to date before rushing to implement untested strategies.

Looking backwards

Finally, the white paper asserts: “So much of the education debate in this country is backward looking.”

Yet so much of the white paper harks back to a 1950s vision of the curriculum. In the context of a competitive global economy we simply cannot afford to ignore the need for a combination of knowledge, skills and understanding in our curriculum. The white paper is silent about employability skills, even though the international evidence is quite clear about their importance, and it has nothing at all to say about the role of new technologies. In fact it says remarkably little about learning.

None of us would deny that there are basics which every child needs and that high standards of academic attainment are a sine qua non for all schools. Where the pendulum has swung too far we must bring it back.

But we have to move beyond the stage where anyone daring to raise these issues is immediately labelled a ‘progressive’ who wishes to ‘dumb down standards’.

So, in support of the Coalition’s strong vote of confidence in schools and college leaders as the key to improving our system further, here are some suggestions:

  • Let us have an informed discussion about what ‘standards’ are so that we move beyond the sterile claim that a GCSE grade C is the only measure of success. Employers and universities must be involved in the debate about what they need learners coming from schools and colleges to be equipped with.
  • Let us have a wholesale change to the culture and role of Ofsted so that the vast database of information it gathers becomes a valuable resource, providing access to best practice for us to share. Inspection should be as much about school improvement as about providing external accountability for a public service.
  • Let us take forward the discussion about school funding in order to ensure that a national funding formula genuinely moves us towards the aims of this white paper. To achieve this it will have to be fair and robust, not just simple, and it must go well beyond a basic funding entitlement.
  • Finally, let us just draw breath and take stock – and build in time to plan, test and evaluate new initiatives – so that developments are implemented properly and in the best interest of young people.

Following a detailed debate at ASCL Council, our full response to the white paper can be found at www.ascl.org.uk

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary