May 2011

The know zone

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  • Crash test dummies?
    In this excerpt from his first address to ASCL Annual Conference as general secretary, Brian Lightman reviews the performance of the coalition government to date and considers the criticism that it has “thrown the education system into reverse”. More
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In this excerpt from his first address to ASCL Annual Conference as general secretary, Brian Lightman reviews the performance of the coalition government to date and considers the criticism that it has “thrown the education system into reverse”.

Crash test dummies?

My first six months as general secretary of ASCL have been interesting times. It is difficult to remember a period of such upheaval in our education service. Nobody could have imagined the extent to which established policies and processes have been questioned and even dismantled in such a short period.

Taking the helm of ASCL at such a time has made me reflect on the process of managing change. You will not be surprised to hear that the last thing I wanted to do when joining such a highly regarded organisation as ASCL was to turn everything on its head, but as school and college leaders know there is always room for further improvement.

The association needs to adapt in order to address the diverse needs of our membership and the rapidly changing context in which they are working. Just as in schools and colleges, we need to make these changes in a time of financial constraint. It would, for example, be unthinkable for us to be raising subscriptions when you are all facing a pay freeze so we have committed to keeping subscriptions at the same level until 2014.

And in setting our priorities our core work as a trade union is positioned firmly at the top of the list – assisting members in difficulty or where their jobs are at risk and working to improve their pay and conditions.

Our recent survey of members showed that they are understandably concerned and indeed angry about potential threats to the pension schemes which are an integral part of their remuneration package. We will continue to voice these concerns strongly and campaign on their behalf to protect their interests. This strength of feeling was clearly expressed when ASCL Council passed a resolution about pensions in February.

The welcome aspirations in last autumn’s white paper towards a high status teaching profession will not be achieved by eroding the pay and conditions of teachers and support staff and placing us all in united confrontation with the government.

We will ensure that ASCL is well placed to meet these challenges, to continue to influence education policy and above all to ensure that we continue to give all of our members the highest quality of advice, support, training and consultancy in response to your needs. And we expect you, the members, to be the first to tell us if we ever fall short of these high standards.

Alternative approach

Six months ago I could have approached this task somewhat differently. Without considering the implications fully I could have said: “Times are hard so we must cut back on our services to members.”

I could have said: “I’m not interested in what went on before I was in post so I’m going to ignore it.” I could have said: “Today is day zero, we will start with a clean slate and set out a completely new vision.”

I could have implemented this by adopting the topsy-turvy approach to management and leadership. The topsy-turvy approach starts at the end of the implementation process rather than the beginning by holding our loyal employees accountable for things nobody ever asked them to do and about which they knew nothing.

In implementing this process of retrospective accountability I would have given all of the ASCL staff a whole new set of performance indicators which, of course, would have shown that we were performing extremely badly. I would then be under no pressure at all to match and build upon the work of the last ten years and have a completely free hand to implement whatever changes I wanted regardless of anything even my most expert and experienced staff said.

To adopt this approach would have meant that much that is of value would have been lost. It would have been so damaging to morale.

Looking back over the initial months of the coalition government, I am afraid that this is what has been happening in too many areas of educational policy. Nobody – least of all school and college leaders – has ever said that everything is right in our education service but we also know that undeniable progress has been made over the last ten years.

We cannot question the passion or commitment of the coalition to give our young people the best life chances. The heartfelt desire of ministers to enable all young people to receive the best possible education whatever their background has underpinned every one of the numerous conversations I have had with them over the last six months.

Not invented here

It is, however, counterproductive to have a system where the slate is wiped clean when there is a change of government and all of those things we have been working on are ignored. The ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome cannot apply in our schools and colleges – and it shouldn’t apply to England Education plc.

Last year a significant research document was published by CFBT education trust. Amongst its challenging recommendations it said: “Given the short career life of ministers and the limited life of governments on one hand, and the need for the long-term implementation of educational reform on the other, there should be a search for consensus between the political parties on non controversial ground.”

Around the same time, the Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews commented: “One of the advantages of devolution is that it allows England to be a laboratory for experiments.”

We should be concerned at a state of affairs where our young people are turned into guinea pigs because education methods are not tested for long enough to ascertain their viability in contemporary society.

Rod Mackinnon, Head of Bristol Grammar School, said in a TES article about independent schools: “We thrive, precisely because we do not have to respond to the latest educational whim from a centralised educational bureaucracy; well meant initiatives perhaps but all too often the product of muddled thinking.”

There is much to be learned from the independent sector.

Thrown into reverse

One of the criticisms levelled at the coalition government is that it has “thrown our education system into reverse”.

Reflecting on that statement, let us take a straightforward model of the development planning cycle – pretty obvious stuff that we have lived and worked with for many years. Yet just imagine if we turned the arrows round on that cycle, started at the end and worked backwards. Instead of starting by setting out the vision, turning that into priorities, planning and implementing them and then evaluating progress, you would start with accountability.

It is the topsy-turvy approach again. It means that instead of driving our system forward using the momentum which is there already, the chosen route is against the flow. For that reason it is encountering resistance even when many of us are in agreement with many of the principles.

That is why there has been such a strong reaction from ASCL members in all sectors about the English Baccalaureate. It’s not only about whether the balance of academic and vocational education is right or whether we need to look at equivalences. It’s the way these important issues are being approached – starting with the premise that everything is broken and needs ‘fixing’.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We make no apologies that we feel it is unacceptable that many children are poorly served by schools that are not doing a good enough job.”

This kind of statement repeated over and over again does nothing to support the creation of a high status profession. You would not hear such public statements in those countries that are so frequently cited by ministers.

Let me be clear: ASCL remains absolutely committed to making our education service even better. As our members work in their schools and colleges to achieve this, we, your representatives, will work constructively and proactively with government and all of our partners to take our education service forward.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary

Crash test dummies?