December 2015


  • Influential focus
    Six months after the General Election, we have a much clearer understanding of how the political land lies. Whatever the challenges may be, there are numerous opportunities for us to influence policy makers both in government and in opposition, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Making maths add up
    When specialists are scarce, leaders need to understand the fundamentals of mathematics in order to ensure it is well taught throughout their schools, says Julia Upton. More
  • Central lines
    John Banbrook looks at the advantages of centralising services for schools in a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the issues for leaders to consider in terms of governance, staff and costs. More
  • Off the chart
    The obsession with tracking and recording data threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching, says Dame Alison Peacock. To make assessment truly meaningful, we need greater expertise throughout the system. More
  • No barriers
    Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson brushed aside society’s low expectations of disabled people to achieve multiple golds on the athletics track and a seat in the House of Lords, yet still faces prejudice in everyday life. She talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Recruitment drive
    The number of graduates entering teaching is falling and the confusing plethora of routes into the profession isn’t helping. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools are tackling the problem themselves. More
Bookmark and Share

Six months after the General Election, we have a much clearer understanding of how the political land lies. Whatever the challenges may be, there are numerous opportunities for us to influence policy makers both in government and in opposition, says Brian Lightman.

Influential focus

Since the General Election, there has been a subtle but significant shift in the way that education policy is decided. For the previous five years, a coalition government meant that every policy decision had to be agreed by both partners. This led to extensive, often tricky, negotiations and compromise on both sides; from our point of view, that provided us with the opportunity to contribute proactively in order to inform and, it is hoped, influence decisions.

The majority mandate has given the Conservatives freedom to implement their policies without that need for compromise. To quote David Cameron: “The manifesto is the bible.” Ministers have been very clear that its commitments will be implemented in full. Judging by announcements during recent weeks and months, they are embracing that opportunity with enthusiasm.

Schools and colleges have a much more certain view of the policy priorities, the challenges and the opportunities. We know what the manifesto commitments are and where the red lines are drawn.
There is no point expecting any of these commitments to be completely reversed. The media and opposition party love U-turns and any government in power will do everything it can to avoid making them.
That means that we need to strike a careful balance between realism and acting in the best interests of our members. Where there are things that we don’t like, we will need first and foremost to identify judiciously what we can play for and then work at influencing the detail of the way that policies are implemented.

Of course, that will not preclude us from stating clearly, publicly and robustly when we believe that the government is simply wrong but that kind of action has to be at the end of the journey and not the opening position.
The good news is that I and other ASCL officers are in very regular contact with ministers, their advisers and their staff. Not only do we approach them proactively with our ideas, briefings and the position statements ( position-statements) agreed by your representatives on our national Council but they also make regular contact with us.

This welcome climate means that they seek our opinions on developing plans and engage closely with our ideas and proposals. Some years ago, the then Secretary of State Ed Balls, said at our conference, “If you think some of our policies are bad, you should have seen them before ASCL got to them.”

Recruitment and funding

There is no question about the degree of challenge that many of you are facing at the moment. Recruitment and funding are at the top of the list of concerns, followed closely by worries about a range of aspects of the curriculum and qualifications reforms. Ministers and their officials are well aware of those concerns and we have ample opportunities to discuss them.

ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-improving System (www.ascl. has already proved itself a powerful vehicle for doing that; the government knows that something needs to be done about funding so our campaign for a National Fair Funding Formula is certainly not falling on deaf ears. If this was an easy matter to solve, previous governments would have addressed it years ago but ministers know that this problem is not going to go away and that success in implementing a whole raft of government policies will depend on progress being made.

The main focus of the blueprint is the self-improving system. In our discussions about the difficult decisions the government has had to make over its spending review, that focus has been extremely powerful.
The aim of the blueprint is to create a world-class education system rather than a vehicle for saving money. The emphasis is on the profession taking a leading role in key issues such as leadership development and curriculum planning, while holding ourselves accountable for education outcomes.

It sees the role for government as strategic issues such as teacher supply that need to remain in its control. This does have the potential for the government to pull back on some of the expensive central programmes and direct scarce resources to where they are really needed.

As well as being proactive about the larger policy questions, the emphasis on a self-improving system also gives us the opportunity to influence the implementation of the manifesto commitments. 

There is, for example, a major tension between the requirement for all young people to take a GCSE in each of the EBacc subjects and the principle of autonomy upon which much of this government’s policy has been based. There must be some degree of flexibility that would enable schools to design a curriculum best suited to all of those pupils. That can be achieved without moving away from the perfectly justifiable principle that they should all be given a strong academic grounding.

Opportunities for collaboration

There are also numerous opportunities for collaboration. As the number of schools working together in groups such as multi-academy trusts, federations and teaching school alliances increases, there are exciting and positive developments of various kinds. These include innovative approaches to succession planning and recruitment where teachers are deployed across groups of schools and opportunities to prepare people for promotion to middle and senior leadership posts.

We don’t need to wait for policy decisions about this. These are matters over which we can be innovative. During recent weeks, our Council and staff have been involved in wide-ranging discussions about ways in which we can address the issues of recruitment and retention. Without letting the government off the hook on this, we are collating those ideas and looking to share and publish them.

Our discussions with policy makers are not limited to the government in power. Now that the Shadow Cabinet is in place, we are engaging in discussion about all of these issues with the Labour Party. It is early days for them in terms of developing precise policies, which makes it an excellent opportunity to share ASCL’s ideas and proposals.
That important work may not have an immediate impact on decisions you have to make now in your schools and colleges but, just as it is essential for us to have a long-term vision, it is vitally important for us to help shape the vision of the opposition as well as the current government.

Confident, creative, bold

So, what can and should school and college leaders be doing in these turbulent and challenging times?

I believe there has never been a greater need for confident, creative and bold leadership.

We need to be driven by a ‘can-do’ mentality and we need to have the courage to innovate. The government needs to have the confidence and courage to allow us to act in that way.

We must avoid the temptation to look continuously over our shoulders and worry about Ofsted but rather take control of the accountability process and confidently demonstrate the impact of the educational vision we are implementing.

My final advice is to ignore the noise, as difficult as that may be. It is so easy to be distracted by the latest media flurry or partisan announcement when actually our exciting, fulfilling and immensely important day job matters much more.

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary