May 2014


  • Raising our voices
    Dialogue with the profession has been sidelined by this government, says Brian Lightman, with damaging results. It needs to be restored, whichever party is in power, if the vision of a great education service that we all share is to be realised. More
  • The perfect addition
    As more schools struggle to fill headship vacancies, business managers are successfully stepping up to leadership. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Be true to your SEF
    As Ofsted announces a shake-up of the inspection framework, Tony Thornley looks at how approaches to school self-evaluation have evolved and explores what a genuinely useful SEF should contain. More
  • Excellence as standard
    We may have reached the zenith of understanding about what makes a great school, says Roy Blatchford. If so, the next step is to make it the norm across the system. More
  • A little bird told me...
    Wary of social media? Think Twitter’s a time-wasting distraction? Avid tweeter Peter Monfort offers a guide to its professional uses that could change your mind. More
  • The true values of education
    record number of school and college leaders gathered in March for the 2014 ASCL Annual Conference, to debate, network and learn about the latest developments in education policy. We were delighted that more than 1,200 of you could join us at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole for what truly More
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Raising our voices

Dialogue with the profession has been sidelined by this government, says Brian Lightman, with damaging results. It needs to be restored, whichever party is in power, if the vision of a great education service that we all share is to be realised.

We launched the Great Education Debate at our annual conference in 2013. It was borne out of a belief that together all of us involved in education – ASCL members, teachers and other education professionals, governors, parents, students, employers, the local authority (LA), academy chains, all political parties, the regulators – could create an education service that was aspirational, ambitious, supported by all and relentlessly focused on improvement.

The response has been impressive. All kinds of individuals and organisations are engaging in these important discussions. Articles and blogs have been written from a wide range of viewpoints. Social media and events have involved many hundreds of teachers, school leaders, governors, young people and other stakeholders in schools and colleges, and beyond.

The issues raised have informed and enriched our discussions with officials, policy makers and others with an interest in our education service. So what has it revealed? Have we discovered some great new truths that everyone else had missed? Of course not. We never expected to. There is a vast amount of evidence that gives us pointers towards what works. The trouble is that all too often that evidence is ignored when policy is made. But we are using that evidence increasingly and we need to do more.

Widespread consensus

In fact, when we start to consider the issues that get to the heart of education, there is a very high degree of consensus.

Nobody has argued against the idea that education requires both knowledge and skills or that we need to prepare young people for the world of work and that young adults need to be, to use the Confederation of British Industry’s (CBI’s) phrase, ‘grounded and rounded’. Nobody has argued against the idea that we need to address the ‘long tail of disadvantage’.

There is also widespread consensus that strategic leadership and funding has left too much to chance or the vagaries of a postcode lottery. There is a loud cry out for coherence and a recognition that our 24,000-plus schools and colleges are part of an education system – a national public service to which everyone should have equal access.

This is most definitely not a call to abandon the autonomy ASCL members strongly value and go back to centralisation. It is a call for a national framework with local flexibility.

Many participants have argued that what is holding us back is a polarised view of the solutions to the challenges we all agree about.

In an article for the Great Education Debate, Anthony Seldon of Wellington College in Crowthorne in Berkshire (see argues that much of the discourse around education has been a ‘battle of souls’ between a ‘mechanical’ and an ‘organic’ view of life, as opposed to a recognition that both of these models have their pluses and minuses. David Hopkins, meanwhile, asserted that a series of myths ‘constrain the realisation of the moral purpose of school and system reform’. It is moral purpose that drives school and college leaders in their daily work.

Yet even while that rich debate has continued, much of it has appeared to populate a Doctor Who-like parallel universe with the bad news stories continuing to dominate the headlines. So often the vast evidence base about what does and doesn’t work is ignored or selectively drawn upon and people with little or no first-hand experience of our sector have put themselves forward as experts.

Even when the Ofsted Chief Inspector’s annual report draws on the vast number of Ofsted inspections to demonstrate how our schools are improving, the publicity is nearly all carping and negative.

Even when the performance tables demonstrate unequivocally how our schools are improving, in spite of the constant tinkering with examinations, and when the Secretary of State himself publicly congratulates the profession, still, too many public messages focus on a half-empty glass rather than one that is half-full.

Ignore the distractions

We can and must ignore the distractions of the almost daily announcements, as each political party tries to prove it is toughest in the painfully long run up to next year’s election.

We will ‘focus on doing the right things’ and our call to policy makers is to work with us to do the same in the interests of young people. Let us never stop imagining the exciting, challenging world it is our shared responsibility to prepare them for.

At ASCL we remain highly proactive, doing everything we can to support our 18,000 members, to influence policy and by providing training to nearly 5,000 school and college leaders since September.

We have set out our vision through ASCL’s policy papers, our position statements and our manifesto ( launched at our annual conference, all developed by serving school and college leaders who you have elected as your representatives.

Every day we talk to decision-makers and present our constructive ideas about how we can make the vision a reality.

They include ideas such as the ones in our recently published papers about the future of Ofsted (see as an essential and trusted part of the accountability system working with us as key drivers of system improvement.

We have put forward ideas about genuinely devolved decision-making that does not simply replace centralised edicts with accountability pressures and ways to help DfE officials shape policy to attract the best professionals into our most challenging schools.

So we have been able to influence many policies but there is still frustration that we are not being listened to often enough. It came as no surprise that working to influence government policy was our members’ top priority for ASCL in our latest membership survey.

We need policy makers to listen carefully and act upon the very real issues that our members raise, not as a barrier to reform – far from it – but because their experience is flashing up warning lights that cannot be ignored.

Our latest membership survey, completed by more than 3,000 members, highlighted four key issues, each of which is still an enormous barrier to real progress: the curriculum, political intervention, constant change, and assessment.

Recalibrate the relationship

So I am calling on this and future governments to recalibrate their relationship with our profession. Imagine how powerful that could be.

ASCL is telling policy makers that things have to change, in the interests of our students. A relationship of mutual trust has to be restored.

During my four years in post I have spoken to ministers about it on countless occasions. And I am one of many who have told them they ‘require improvement’. They tell me that they understand and recognise the issue and officials listen to us earnestly and with patience.

But that is not the same as doing things differently. The tone and substance of too many government messages haven’t been dealt with.

We want to see evidence of this new relationship at the heart of the manifesto commitments of all parties.

Just imagine the big wins for all of us that that would bring in terms of the motivation, status and morale of our profession and the life chances of all those young people.

This is an edited extract of Brian’s speech to ASCL’s Annual Conference in Birmingham March 21-22 2014. For the full text, go to

Read all of the contributions to the Great Education Debate at

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary