February 2013

The know zone

  • Warning signs
    The case of a BNP councillor who took his claim against unfair dismissal to the European Court of Human Rights is a warning to schools and colleges, says Richard Bird. More
  • Toil and trouble
    Changes to local and national funding formulae could be a recipe for a whole cauldron of bother, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Judy Garland, Kongzi, Ezra Pound, Felix Cohen and Thomas Fuller More
  • Home ground
    After 20 years away, Mark Stanyer returned to the school where he began his teaching career and is now principal of Ormiston Sir Stanley Matthews Academy in Stoke-on-Trent. More
  • Nourishing minds
    The Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) is revolutionising school meals by reconnecting young people with farms and inspiring them to grow food and cook. More
  • Keeping pedagogy on track
    Despite being in the midst of one of the most challenging periods in education Brian Lightman explains why he believes there are strong grounds for optimism in 2013. More
  • Adding value
    In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced two changes that will hit high earners, people seeking to boost their pension provision, and public sector workers who benefit from generous employer contributions. More
  • Quantitative easing
    Do you believe changes announced to the teachers’ pay structure will be beneficial or detrimental? Here, leaders share their views. More
  • Plantastic voyage
    Nothing solves a problem quite like a carefully constructed, conscientiously costed action plan. Just make sure that everyone has the correctly coloured stationery. More
  • Leaders' Surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Financial times...
    With changes to pensions announced in the Autumn Statement and proposals to change teachers’ pay published only days before ASCL Council met in December, it was no surprise that pay and conditions were high on the agenda. More
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Despite being in the midst of one of the most challenging periods in education Brian Lightman explains why he believes there are strong grounds for optimism in 2013.

Keeping pedagogy on track

Reflecting on 2012 as a year in education I am reminded of one of those Thomas the Tank Engine stories that my children used to enjoy when one of the elder statesmen of the railway engine world calls out to an hyperactive new one who is rushing around, “Stop! Stop! Stop! My head is in a whirl!”

Words and phrases like ‘rigour’, ‘grade infl ation’ and ‘dumbing down’ fl y around in a whirlwind of emotive discourse, fuelled by excited commentators. Tantalisingly, the seemingly non-stop stream of announcements outlining changes to the education service has often lacked evidence of an overall strategy or implementation plan.

Instead, we have been taken on a whirlwind tour of the world hearing snippets of good practice while all too often omitting detail of the culture, structures or policies underlying them. No sooner have we got our heads around Finland than we have moved to Singapore, Poland or Germany. Inconvenient truths such as the recent Pearson report on global education, which placed England sixth in the world, have been quietly ignored.

When the chief inspector of schools published an annual report that showed significant improvements in our education service the reporting focused on what was wrong.

Changes to qualifications are being rushed in prior to decisions about what the curriculum should look like. Major changes to pay and conditions are underway without any plans to address the enormous implications in terms of governance, funding and leadership capacity.

Nevertheless, I still believe there are grounds for great optimism at the beginning of 2013, a year that presents unprecedented opportunities for school and college leaders to get back into the driving seat of our education service and lift it to new heights.

For school and collegeleaders 2012 has been a year in which they have worked with absolute determinationto do the very best for young people. They have risen to the challenges of rising floor targets and of a new inspection system but have not waited for such external pressures to raise the bar themselves in terms of their definition of best practice in the classroom or expected outcomes for every learner in their schools. Many ASCL members have successfully led their institutions through
intense structural change, whether converting to academies, co-operative trusts or becoming teaching schools.

Sting in the tail

And in spite of these efforts and all of the tangible improvements that they are driving, they know that complacency has no place. We all know there is more to do. It really is a success story but one which has a sting in its tail.

When the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published its report First Steps – A New Approach For Our Schools in November I heard several people commenting that this was probably the most important education report to be published in 2012. The reason why this document is so significant is that it crystallises the greatest challenge facing the English education system with a clarity that simply
cannot be ignored. And that is the sting to which I refer.

The overriding message of this report is that an obsessive focus on accountability for the last 35 years has led to a ‘focus on controlling inputs, not outcomes’. In other words, it has led to a continuing stream of initiatives focusing on institutional and system-wide performance targets that, perversely, distract us from the learning outcomes that each individual young person needs to achieve. In what the report
describes as a “conveyor belt education system” the driver becomes the target such as the C/D borderline or the five A*-C indicator, distracting us from what each individual student actually learns.

Nothing has brought this into sharper focus than the debate around so-called grade inflation, ‘comparable outcomes’ and the GCSE English results, where an understandable desire to maintain ‘rigour’ in the education system – that no school or college leader could fail to support – focuses on how many marks constitute a grade C, rather than what a literate young person may know, understand and be able to do at the age of 16.

As we move through the second half of the parliamentary cycle I would like to believe that we are on a cusp in which school and college leaders can actually help to harness the progress made so far and lead
forward the development of our system into a place that can take it away from the toxic discourse of failure and adversarial politics.

The key to this has to be in the central recommendation of that same CBI report that calls for:

“Development of a clear, widely-owned and stable statement of the outcome that all schools are asked to deliver. This should go beyond the merely academic, into the behaviours and attitudes schools should foster in everything they do. It should be the basis on which we judge all new policy ideas, schools and the structures we set up to monitor them.”

That simply and clearly worded paragraph presents an absolutely immense challenge and opportunity to anyone with an interest in our education service.

Difficult discussions

It places demands on every one of us, on politicians across the whole spectrum and on everyone else with a stake in our education service, to enter into a fascinating, demanding, exciting debate of vast national importance. Not one of us can afford to be defensive or to ignore legitimate points of view of people with which we may disagree.

There will be difficult discussions but ones that I would like to see taking place in every school, college, policy thinktank, university department and representative group in the land.

So my optimism comes from a hope that we are actually on the cusp of getting back to what really matters in education. This change is manifesting itself in the following ways:

  • An impatience among many ASCL members with things that distract them from what really matters in the classroom and a wish
    to identify and share best practice within or between schools or drawing upon academic research. The well-attended Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) conference in December and the work of Whole Education, together with the vast amount of collaborative continuing professional development (CPD) work being led and driven by schools and colleges, are examples.
  • A recognition as school and college leaders adopt the promised freedom and autonomy that they do not have to wait for curriculum
    development to be limited to what is expedient in terms of current policy and can focus on what actually works and has an effect
    on learning outcomes.
  • A commitment by employers to engage with education with unprecedented depth in order to reach a shared view of the knowledge, skills, understanding, behaviours and attitudes our young people need, not only in order to be employable but also to lead fulfilling lives. Over the last year we have seen an enormous
    increase in the number of employers who are engaging enthusiastically with our education service.

I sincerely hope that 2013 will genuinely be a year during which school and college leaders feel they can “seize the agenda”. ASCL will certainly be there to facilitate that debate.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL secretary

pedagogy on track