September 2011

The know zone

  • On the level
    However unpopular or culpable an employee seems to be, any dismissal process against them has to be just and impartial, says Richard Bird, even one instigated by the secretary of state. More
  • Nobody's fool
    Now you've budgeted for your staff, make sure you get value for money in whatever you ask them to do, says Sam Ellis. There's no easy way to do this, but an online tool may help. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Albert Einstein, Socrates, Bill Cosby and Confuscious More
  • The guv'nor
    Philip Capper was named school governor of the year at last year's UK Teaching Awards. He is chair of governors at Ysgol Bryn Elian in Old Colwyn, Wales. He recently retired from his full-time job in the offshore fishing industry. More
  • b-live to work
    The b-live Foundation was set up six years ago to help and inspire young people to make informed career choices through partnerships with schools, employers and other organisations. More than 230,000 students are currently being supported. More
  • Adding value
    Getting the best from staff More
  • Examination thoughts
    From September 2012, external exams for GCSE will be done at the end of the course so there will be no modular exams part-way through. Is this a good move? And if changes are to be made to GCSE, are there others that would be more effective in improving them? School leader s share their views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Commanding performance, Don't know much about biology... More
  • Ever-shifting pension debate
    Held just two weeks before the teacher unions' one-day strike on pensions, the June Council meeting was dominated by this topic and debate over how ASCL should proceed. More
  • Answering the right questions
    The shocking events in England's cities – and the involvement of young people in them – underline the need for the profession to seize the debate about the purpose of education, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Stick to the plan
    Nigel Poole presents his 20 top tips to becoming a valued, respected, hard-working, cheerful, credible, versatile and all-round impressive leader. More
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Answering the right questions

The shocking events in England's cities – and the involvement of young people in them – underline the need for the profession to seize the debate about the purpose of education, says Brian Lightman.

This academic year has started against the truly shocking backdrop of the events on our city streets which have cast everything we do in schools and colleges into sharp focus. If anything has ever demonstrated the need to ask some fundamental and challenging questions about the very meaning and purpose of education, the role it can play and the limits of schools and colleges to solve the ills of society, it is the August riots.

Contrary to what some commentators think, for some young people schools and colleges are the only place where boundaries exist and where there are consistent expectations of behaviour.

This explains why it is often our most vulnerable youngsters who find it hardest to wrench themselves away from school and enter adulthood, even though they have fought against and tried to disrupt it for many years.

The Mayor of London described the riots as a "massive wake-up call". I couldn’t agree more. These events underline the need for us to seize the debate about the purpose of education.

The blunt fact is that much of the discussion about academic knowledge, GCSE grades and access to Russell Group universities applies to one part of the curriculum and the needs of a certain group of young people.

These topics are important but there are whole sections of our population whose needs are vastly different. The government has missed this point.

Lack of moral code

The 11-year-olds seen among the crowds marauding the streets lack the basic building blocks and a moral code which tells them the difference between right and wrong. We try to compensate for this in our schools with varying degrees of success.

This underlines why ASCL has been arguing so strongly for a broader view of the curriculum based on a framework of values which can influence attitudes, develop self-esteem and challenge.

It is not about dumbing down but about choosing the right starting point and providing young people with options that meet their specific needs. Many ASCL members throughout the UK have brought about spectacular improvements in their schools and colleges through careful and targeted curriculum planning, the provision of differentiated pathways and the combination of a strong grounding in basics and applied learning which motivates and engages.

Over the last year ASCL has warned about the risks of removing many of the support mechanisms that sit alongside this approach, including EMA, Aim Higher and behaviour partnerships.

It would be simplistic to suggest that this has caused the unrest but the messages about the cuts together with uncertain employment prospects have clearly reached a significant number of young people who are only too happy to use them as an excuse for criminal activity.

During the last year many of you have been reeling under the sheer number of structural changes. While some of these bring welcome opportunities, the level of upheaval is unsustainable and could undermine the vast progress made over the last decade in raising the standards. We now desperately need stability to ensure that we do not take our eye off the ball.

Deluge of consultations

However, anyone who returned from their summer break expecting a less frenzied year is going to be disappointed, judging by the deluge of consultations and calls for evidence from the DfE and other public bodies.

Simultaneously, we are likely to see a continuation and possible escalation of the pensions dispute, leading to widespread industrial action. It is the last thing we need, yet it will be unavoidable unless some compromise is reached over a set of proposals and fait accompli decisions which make a mockery of the government's promise of a high status profession.

At the end of term, the government was seeking responses on an eye-watering range of topics at heart of the work of school and college leaders. At the end of July, once many of you were safely out of the country, the consultation on proposed increases to the pension contributions was launched.

I urge you to respond to the DfE consultations which you can find at Please also visit and look at ASCL's responses and let us know your thoughts so that we can feed them in to further discussions with officials and ministers. Details of how to contact your elected representatives and ASCL staff are included with this mailing and published on our website.

Over the next months the professional leadership provided by ASCL members will be immensely important. You deal on a daily basis with those families which do not provide their children with the structure or discipline to become responsible citizens. We need to play a leading part in the debate about how to enable these young people to succeed. We need to be able to say some things that may not be viewed as politically correct or comfortable to some about the balance of rights and responsibilities and, crucially, about the role of parents once the school day – however much we extend it – has finished.

There has never been a greater imperative for us to assert our professionalism and take control of the education agenda.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary

Answering the right questions