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Anger is mounting over the government’s peremptory approach to consultation with the profession, says Brian Lightman.

A turning point?

As I was reflecting on what has felt like a very long and challenging eight-week first half of the autumn term two things happened that felt deeply symbolic of the climate we are working in.

The first was an email containing the first aerial photos of the replacement for the aged buildings of St Cyres School in Penarth, due to open in 2014. Having campaigned for 11 years to reach this point, as head this was an exciting moment. It is so much more than a new building – it’s a compelling, forward-thinking statement of a new vision for education in that town; it is a seven-days-a-week learning community with a special school located next to the mainstream school, adult education facilities, community learning and superb sports facilities.

The second was my attendance at a London event launching a new organisation owned by and for a group of inspiring and creative school leaders called Schools of Tomorrow. (www.schoolsoftomorrow.org) A key proposition of this group of practitioners is that we need to redefine the concept of ‘outstanding’ way beyond the very narrow metrics that currently designate pupil achievement and school success. These school leaders are working together to develop and share leading-edge practice in four areas that they view as fundamentals of equal importance in becoming a ‘school of tomorrow’ of the highest quality: the highest levels of achievement (defined as progress in relation to their own starting points towards agreed national standards); the highest levels of well-being; highly effective preparation for adult working life; and highly effective family and community engagement.

In a thought-provoking and highly challenging presentation, Professor John West Burnham asked us to think about whether doing more of the same, even if we do it better, is really an option or whether we need to ‘re-conceptualise’ schools. While fully acknowledging the boundaries within which we operate, he posed difficult questions about whether our current models of schooling, which have been in place for so long, continue to be appropriate in the 21st century. You can read more about this on the Great Education Debate (GED) website at www.greateducationdebate.org.uk

‘Angry, helpless, demoralised’

The first half of this term has been incredibly challenging for school and college leaders. Meeting members around the country I am constantly hearing words like ‘angry’, ‘helpless’, ‘demoralised’, ‘exasperated’ and ‘frustrated’. The announcement changing the rules about early entry, which mean that only a student’s first entry to a GCSE exam will count in their school’s performance tables, really was the last straw for many members. That was not so much because of the issue of early entry itself but because of the way that that announcement was made: the timing, the medium used to announce it and, above all, the emotive language used that presented headteachers as dishonest.

The vast number of calls and emails we received and the passionate discussions at ASCL Council certainly cannot be dismissed as mere reaction to an unpopular decision. They reflected far more. Many people who have been working tirelessly to implement government policies and to set their sights on even higher standards – people who wholly agree with government that we need to do this – were saying ‘enough is enough’. That is why Council passed such a strongly worded resolution (see www.ascl.org.uk/gcse-early-entry). What are the implications of that? As always, school and college leaders think of students first and they are deeply worried about ensuring that they do the very best for them, however challenging the political context is. So the overwhelming reaction has been to turn away from the politics and focus on what matters. Although many have been forced against their better judgement to change their entry patterns for wholly understandable reasons, many others, supported by their governing bodies, parents and local authorities (LAs), are sticking to their guns while we campaign for common sense to prevail and the students’ final outcomes to be published (alongside first entry results if ministers really want to publish them and do not trust their own regulator to evaluate the effectiveness of entry policies as clearly defined in the Ofsted handbook).

But this whole discussion has led to a much broader debate at the same time as we have been facilitating a discussion of the purpose of education via the Great Education Debate. And I am hearing more and more people asking fundamental questions about that topic.

Seize the agenda

When I see all of the different groups that are springing up and the growing numbers of school leaders who are putting their foot down and asserting their professional judgement about what is best for their students, I wonder whether we have reached a turning point. And if that is the case, it would be worth reflecting on what that may mean in practice. Three things come to mind.

Somebody recently asked me whether I thought we had lost our confidence as a profession. I sincerely hope not, but if that is the case my first point is that we need to rediscover it quickly. In order to do that we must recognise that school leaders got to the positions that they hold because of their experience, knowledge, skills and successful track record.

My second point is that we must trust that experience and assert it strongly, especially when it is dismissed and ignored on the basis of flimsy evidence.

The third point is that we must build on that confidence and experience to assert our vision for the future of education in our schools. On that basis we can then ask the really difficult questions that we need to face if we are going to take up that challenge of creating the ‘schools of tomorrow’.

Recent announcements, the atmosphere at the party conferences and the strong media focus on differences within the coalition reflect the climate we can expect to see during the 16 months between now and the next General Election. Undoubtedly, all of the political parties will be trying to assert the uniqueness of their own approaches within the context of directions of travel that do not differ greatly in terms of headline policies.

I wonder whether any of them will have the courage to recognise the fact that doing more of the same and measuring the same things will no longer be an option.

The photo of St Cyres that dropped into my inbox is of a vision developed by the entire community turning into a reality. If we have witnessed a crisis of confidence in recent weeks, has this given rise to a turning point, one where school and college leaders will insist on their professional right to seize the agenda and turn the vision they know is right into a reality?

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary

The future of education impacts on everyone. Have your say – and find out what others are saying at: www.greateducationdebate.org.uk