May 2011


  • Global positioning
    PISA data shows English and Welsh schools’ performance falling behind that of other countries. Or does it? And is importing other nations’ education policies the way to move up the tables? It’s not that simple, says Ian Bauckham. More
  • Business studies
    Government figures show a quarter of secondary schools have converted to academy status. But is the transition merely a change in funding distribution, or a radical overhaul of how schools operate? With a ten-week timetable, t two business managers from a mixed comprehensive in Cumbria found out. More
  • Speaking their language
    A six-year ASCL project has found that learning a group of languages at primary school can have a positive influence on children’s attitudes to languages and their choices at GCSE, though there were more surprising results. More
  • Positive gestures
    The education system is still highly compartmentalised, says Les Walton. It is time for heads, principals and others to dismantle the boundaries between their sectors and learn from each other. More
Bookmark and Share

Positive gestures

The education system is still highly compartmentalised, says Les Walton. It is time for heads, principals and others to dismantle the boundaries between their sectors and learn from each other.

It was the summer of rock ’n’ roll, the mid-1960s. I had done the training, won the job and was standing in front of a class of expectant teenagers when reality kicked in. I was given the bottom set of pupils in their last year at school.

On my first day I was facing a class who would not take examinations, had no real hope of work and were facing social problems which I had never experienced nor understood, a fact brought home to me when we visited a Roman wall and I heard one pupil say to another: “Don’t look at it, he might test you.” They were simply filling in time before they left.

This was the reality of teaching in a divided system. The tripartite structure not only divided pupils it divided teachers, too.

These days, school and college leaders are increasingly asked to go beyond the boundaries of their own institutions. The ability to understand partners in other sectors is critical if we are to fundamentally improve the lives of our young people. I have a belief that the greatest barrier to true collaboration may be the leader’s self-confidence.

With hindsight I realise how many of my career moves necessitated crossing social, educational and cultural boundaries and every change has taught me another important lesson about bridging these divides.

Respect the views and expertise of others

When I left headship to become a director of education in the 1990s I began to grasp how much more we could achieve if schools and senior council managers had a shared vision. It might seem obvious now but at the time it felt visionary!

I started involving heads in the strategic development of education because listening to headteachers and getting their input was crucial in restructuring the three-tier system. We were designing solutions which, ultimately, we had to implement.

I always encourage headteachers and principals to understand the inner workings of their local council and seek to engage in the wider strategic issues that may affect their institutions.

Share values, intelligence, problems and the bigger picture

In 2000, I was brought in to help at an authority that had failed its inspection and where relationships with headteachers and the council had virtually broken down. The government asked me to lead the interim management of the local education authority and help procure an external private sector provider. No pressure then.

But there were so many boundaries. We needed a ‘new relationship with schools’ so school improvement teams were established by recruiting the most outstanding heads. The role of the teams was to question and support both the schools and the authority, while encouraging a constructive dialogue.

My priority was improving the cross-boundary work, so we created strategic boards with headteachers and governors and involved them in key decisions like financial and organisational development. I learned that people have an incredible generosity of spirit as long as they understand the full picture.

When school and college leaders, local authorities and other significant stakeholders are partners in improvement, standards improve much more.

Don’t think you have the monopoly on care for young people

I never lay awake at night longing for conversations about liquidity ratios and shareholder agreements. But I crossed the entrepreneurial barrier when I set up a consultancy called Northern Education.

As with other boundary crossings, the language, systems and culture at the local Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors were alien; I was tightlipped when some employers spouted painfully condescending clichés about “kids today being illiterate and unsociable” and “not taught what employers need”.

Then I recalled staffroom conversations with colleagues complaining, “All they want is factory fodder,” and I realised we were just as ignorant.

I tried crossing that boundary by becoming chair of a Chamber of Commerce, and joined the regional board of the Institute of Directors. I learned that wanting the best for young people isn’t restricted to educationalists.

Many profit-focused employers have a strong social conscience and concern for children and share exactly the same values as teachers. Traditionally FE principals have much more experience engaging with employer organisations and both the employers and educational leaders gain a great deal.

Seek to learn from other sectors – you may be surprised

Another venture into the unknown was being appointed chief executive and principal of an FE college. Whereas other boundary crossing appointments were judged as an unusual but natural progression, becoming an FE principal was like entering a parallel universe.

While the core business of teaching and learning was very familiar, the new world of FE with its complex funding streams, self-regulation, vast range of students’ programmes and clients left me gobsmacked. The FE principals demonstrated a unique form of leadership which combined the expertise of the private, public and voluntary sectors.

My knowledge of the business world and my long service as a member of the board of an FE college was good preparation; nevertheless the lessons I learned in student and employer engagement would have been invaluable to me when I was a headteacher.

Schools and the FE sector have so much to learn from each other yet our national training programmes continue to be divided. A great deal of progress has been made in cross-sector understanding at a national and local level but we have so much more to do. Certainly, where there is sharing of good practice and experience everybody gains.

Talk to others, they may agree with you

When I was asked to help advise the North-East Development Agency on its regional economic strategy I realised this was the first time schools had been directly involved in economic planning, despite the fact that schools, local government and the health service are the biggest employers in the region with a combined multi-billion pound turnover.

It turned out that employer organisations had always wanted to engage more directly with schools. Equally the schools felt that they wanted more influence. But nobody had joined the dots.

I suggested establishing Schools NorthEast, involving representatives from all the secondary, primary and private schools in the region to give all schools a voice on social and economic regeneration. Already the organisation has enabled schools to influence regional strategy. Support for Schools NorthEast from the CBI, TUC, National College and ASCL has been fantastically encouraging.

Be an educational voyeur

As chair of the Young People’s Learning Agency I am proud that our board members’ expertise spans the academies movement, third sector, maintained schools, local government and the private sector. Our key purpose is to reach consensus about the best way forward for our young people and we share a common ambition to transcend traditional boundaries and break down barriers.

There are school and college representatives on the YPLA board. I know they are always ready to respond to the concerns and views of their colleagues.

Though my career was never a planned progression, I can see a purpose in the route I chose. When I look back to those lads in the 1960s, I realise that today we are seeking to expand the participation of young people in education rather than condemn them to just filling in time. We want them to look outside at the view, beyond their sometimes narrow experience.

As educationalists we need to do the same.

  • Les Walton is chair of the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA).

Positive gestures