July 2012

The know zone

  • Water-tight contracts
    Along with greater freedom and independence, schools also now have the huge responsibility of procuring the services of reliable contractors. Schools and colleges need to have their wits about them as Richard Bird explains More
  • Rate of return
    How do you convert time into money? Sam Ellis explains the many complexities of this question and looks at how schools can get value for money when deploying their staff. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Michael Jordan, Michaelangelo, Audrey Hepburn, Carl Sagan and Thomas Fuller More
  • Fame academy
    Vic Goddard is principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, which is the school featured in Channel 4’s BAFTA-nominated documentary series, Educating Essex. More
  • Summing up
    Aviva’s Paying for It scheme gets students thinking about finances – their own and the nation’s. More
  • Adding value
    ASCL members can save money More
  • Fishing for staff?
    What is the most effective way to recruit and retain the best graduates as teachers? The parliamentary Education Select Committee has put forward its own ideas, ranging from higher pay and performance bonuses to sabbatical scholarships and a Royal College of Teaching. Here, leaders share their own views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Exams: Double the trouble? and Are exclusions a 'fine' thing More
  • A slippery slope?
    Struggling schools need the best heads to turn them around. But the fear of being sacked if they do not succeed quickly is deterring outstanding leaders from taking on these tough roles and undermining attempts to tackle social mobility, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Skirting the issue
    Long-serving heads will have particular targets in mind as retirement approaches. Going before you’re pushed is clearly crucial. After that, it’s all about the legacy you will leave, says Dennis Richards. More
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Struggling schools need the best heads to turn them around. But the fear of being sacked if they do not succeed quickly is deterring outstanding leaders from taking on these tough roles and undermining attempts to tackle social mobility, says Brian Lightman.

A slippery slope?

One year ago, the coalition launched its social mobility strategy. A key element was the pupil premium, a long-cherished Liberal Democrat education initiative.

One year on, it remains a keystone of government action on social mobility, as Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, signalled in a speech in May. He announced that, as well as increasing the funding levels from £488 to £600 per pupil for 2012-13 and extending the eligibility to children who have been eligible for free school meals at any time in the last six years, the financial commitment will rise to £2.5 billion by the end of this Parliament.

The pupil premium money has been allocated in the context of significant reductions in funding elsewhere in education. It is natural that schools would look to use this new money to make up shortfalls in other budgets but this would be to miss the point of the initiative – and it would jeopardise the future of a pot of money which was won in hard-fought political battles at a time of great austerity.

We should do everything we can to ensure that these resources are put to maximum effect and the profession is responding enthusiastically to the challenge, a fact which was recognised by the Deputy Prime Minister in his speech.

Many school leaders tell me that they are using the premium to help continue many of the interventions for which they had previously used ring-fenced funding, such as one-to-one tuition and extended school activities. Even if the amount is not enough, the fact that schools like these have been able to maintain such activities has to be a good thing.

One headteacher of a challenging and rapidly improving school recently commented wistfully: “We have been doing so much to improve standards and there is so much more we want to do but there is a limit to what you can achieve with the £120,000 we receive.”

When the pupil premium was announced, ministers said they would leave it to schools decide how best to use the funds in their own contexts and not micro-manage. We must hold them to this.

There is a new suggestion almost every day, it seems, from someone in Parliament of what the premium should be used for, whether it’s a full range of strategies and interventions which target pupils, continuing professional development (CPD), careers advice and guidance, paying the best teachers to work in challenging schools, smaller classes, curriculum developments, extended schools, breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, outings...

Unless schools retain the power to decide where the money should go, we will end up with the same ring-fenced funding system that we started with.

More than academy freedoms

We also need to pay attention to other, less tangible things that can make a real difference to social mobility.

I believe that the most significant driver of social mobility within education is attracting the best teachers and school leaders into our most challenging schools. While initiatives like Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders have a significant impact in some areas, the arguments often rehearsed by ministers are that academy freedoms and financial rewards will entice leaders into these schools. They are missing a key factor.

It is abundantly clear to ASCL’s member support department that the biggest disincentive to taking on a leadership role in a challenging school is the vulnerability that comes with such posts. Too often, heads are expected to improve results substantially within an unrealistically short time – or face the sack.

Increasingly, we are seeing that the average tenure for heads of such schools can be as short as 18 months. It is far too short a time to do anything other than make a start on the journey to improving the school in difficulty.

Frequently, headteachers who were appointed to such posts on the basis of outstanding performance in a previous headship are suddenly deemed by Ofsted to be underperforming within months of arriving. This is deeply damaging to the capacity of our system to make a difference to social mobility.

Myth of the hero head

ASCL’s answers to this are straightforward and have nothing to do with tolerating underperformance or mediocrity.

First, there has to be a move away from a presumption that removing the headteacher should be the automatic reaction to any problem in a challenging school. Just like any other employee, heads have a right to be given a chance and time to do what they have been tasked with.

There seems to have been an unfortunate return, not justified by any evidence of its effectiveness, to a culture that believes that a ‘hero head’ can work magic within weeks or months.

Next, when appointments are made to lead challenging schools, it is essential that a carefully planned and funded package of support, including a programme of staff training, is put in place by the governing body or academy sponsor.

We also need to identify those strategies which have the biggest impact on narrowing gaps and sharing best practice. ASCL will play an important part in this through our own networks and by working with other organisations, including the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), which is strongly committed to disseminating the results of projects that it supports.

Ministers have recently drawn attention to a list of schools which seem to be succeeding in narrowing the gaps between the performance of disadvantaged and other children. This data needs to be analysed carefully.

We need to look at the breakdown of the intake of these schools, including the ethnic and social background of the pupils, admissions criteria, their curriculum and the strategies they have adopted so that we genuinely understand what is working and why. Eligibility for free school meals only tells a small part of the story.

ASCL welcomes the proposal by Nick Clegg for bursaries for teachers to fund applied research projects which could investigate these matters and help us all to learn from the best practice. But bursaries should not only be granted to teachers in the most successful schools; it is critically important that those schools which have further to travel are given the highest priority in terms of professional development and support.

We also need to identify the strategies which have less impact and ensure that this information is disseminated, too, in order to avoid schools wasting time on ineffective measures.

Ofsted’s role

Ofsted can and should play a part in this. It visits every school in the country and sees all of the data on pupil achievement. If the organisation does nothing more than pass judgement and throw brickbats, it is a massive waste of a resource.

Part of its remit should be to identify and share the most effective practice observed in all kinds of schools and contexts and publish the insights on its website so other schools can make contact to learn more.

The Deputy Prime Minister said in his May speech: “We want every aspiring new teacher to see working with disadvantaged children as a crucial step to the top and as an essential part of a successful and fulfilling career.”

This would reflect the kind of career path that medical consultants have but, if it is to happen, it cannot simply be left as an aspiration. It will need to be underpinned by a coherent strategy which builds this kind of experience into initial teacher training and early professional development.

There must be a happy medium between a top-down approach and a free-for-all.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary