October 2015


  • The new normal
    At the start of the academic year, education is going through a period of transition with system leadership fast becoming the norm. Reflecting this, ASCL is introducing a raft of changes of its own, says Brian Lightman, to recognise the new skill-set that leaders now require. More
  • Unlocking potential
    Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan sets out her priorities for the next five years and says she is committed to working with ASCL members to achieve them. More
  • Turning the tide
    The number of women deputy and assistant heads is growing but if they are to aspire to headship realistically, the profession needs to offer them more targeted career support and development now, says Carol Jones. More
  • Briefer encounters
    The impact of leadership is the key evidence that inspectors will be seeking under the new shorter Ofsted inspections. Suzanne O’Farrell explains this and other significant changes to the framework. More
  • Joint enterprise
    Peter Tomkins explores the thinking behind a new multi-academy trust that has no CEO and where every school is an equal partner holding the others to account. More
  • University challenge
    The University of Southampton is supporting sixth form students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to give them a taste of what academic life is like – and what skills they will require – at a research-intensive institution. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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At the start of the academic year, education is going through a period of transition with system leadership fast becoming the norm. Reflecting this, ASCL is introducing a raft of changes of its own, says Brian Lightman, to recognise the new skill-set that leaders now require.

The new normal

I wonder what the 2015-16 academic year will be remembered for? Will it be one in which the self-improving system genuinely flourishes or will we see a return to top-down centralisation, fixated on the minutiae of what happens in schools and colleges? From where I am sitting the jury is still out.

I know which scenario we would like and I see many positive signs. But I also see many of our members feeling immense pressure under the strain of reducing finances, recruitment difficulties and, at the very least, a perception that they are constantly being told how to operate.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic. One very obvious and potentially positive development has been the growth in importance of ‘system leadership’. There is a real appetite and enthusiasm among school and college leaders to make a difference for all of the young people in their area rather than just those in their own institution.

During the last year, the landscape of our school system has undergone enormous changes. As we start the new academic year literally thousands of you are now in ‘system’ leadership roles.

Rather than leading one school, many of you are running several, either in federations or, most frequently in multi-academy trusts (MATs). Some who formerly held posts designated as headteachers or principals are now chief executives accountable for the operation of more than one school. Some of you have new responsibilities and a very different job description, responsibilities and accountabilities requiring a whole new skill-set from that needed to lead a single school.

Within those contexts there are other senior leaders whose job description now reaches beyond the gates of their ‘home’ school into other establishments, again requiring them to acquire new skills and establish different kinds of relationships.

Understanding micro-politics

Then there are those senior leaders who are working in the large and growing number of teaching school alliances, working across several schools needing a much wider understanding of the issues, relationships and micro-politics of working in such a context.

Above all, the boundaries between the primary and secondary phases have become much more blurred with many of the groupings I have described covering the entire age range from three to 19.

The word ‘system’ provides interesting food for thought. Some would argue that our system is more fragmented than it has ever been with numerous academy chains, trusts, teaching school alliances and other groupings of schools and colleges operating independently. They would argue that we no longer have a coherent system.

Others would say that these new systems are beginning to gain a much needed coherence by the ‘glue’ of the regional schools commissioners, Ofsted regional directors, the Teaching Schools Council (TSC) and the headteacher boards. There is no question that the system is in transition. At the start of the academic year, education is going through a period of transition with system leadership fast becoming the norm. Reflecting this, ASCL is introducing a raft of changes of its own, says Brian Lightman, to recognise the new skill-set that leaders now require. It will be some time before we know how successful this will all be. The acid test will be whether the variations in the performance of our system in different parts of the country will have been replaced by consistently high performance.

During the last year or more ASCL has been very carefully considering the implications of these developments and undertaking a major piece of work on the future shape of our education system.

As always we have looked at this from the perspective of the needs of you, our members, as well as the best means to influence government. A significant number of our Council members who have system leadership roles have been engaged in this work that has been informed by surveys of ASCL members and other stakeholders, school visits and round-table discussions. Feedback from our membership and professional development directorates has been vitally important.

All of this has led to the conclusion that ASCL is the natural home for system leaders. While they are already and will continue to be a very significant part of ASCL’s membership, they have a specific set of needs we must meet and much to contribute. These colleagues may already be leading a MAT, teaching school alliance or other form of federation or have some other kind of national profile though which they are influencing the ambition we all have for our education system.

In this context a number of changes to our constitution were passed at ASCL’s annual general meeting (AGM) in July. One of them was the addition of a word to the description of ASCL as the professional body for school, college and system leaders. It may seem small but I am certain it is deeply significant for current and future ASCL members. Beyond that we have made some changes to our membership categories and criteria:

  • We have extended full membership eligibility to any person working in education whose responsibilities extend across a group of schools or colleges. Full members will also include individuals employed by education associations approved by ASCL Council.
  • We have created a new category of executive head. This will enable us to tailor communications to that specific group and develop our offer for them. 

It is clear that the skill-set needed to lead a group of schools is not dependent on the age range of the students. So someone leading a group of primary schools with 3,000 students has a very similar and completely comparable set of responsibilities to someone leading more than one secondary. We have therefore amended our criteria to admit primary system leaders into our membership.

Under trade union law self-employed people are not eligible for full membership. However, numerous former school, college and system leaders carry our important work within the system under such employment arrangements. For these colleagues we have amended our category of membership to professional associate. While they will not be eligible for legal support they will have access to the full range of advice, guidance and communications.

All of this, however, will only be of use if we meet the needs of those joining us. To that end we will continue to develop the support we offer to all categories of members including these new ones. Examples include:

  • production of new guidance and extending the range of information available
  • detailed guidance for those establishing MATs; there are all sorts of aspects of the governance and leadership of such organisations that need to be carefully considered and understood
  • development of ASCL PD’s offer to include the new MA in System Leadership that we are currently preparing and that has been approved by the University of Leicester
  • a range of bespoke and other programmes for system leaders
  • ASCL PD consultants assisting numerous leadership teams and governing bodies to adapt to the changing landscape
  • The establishment of the Foundation for Leadership in Education about which we are in detailed discussion with the DfE. Although it is in the early stages of development there is no question that the National Professional Qualifications are not only to be retained but also developed in the future. Developing the much needed Level 5 qualifications building upon the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and focused on leadership of more than one institution is an urgent and overdue priority that the profession can and should lead.

I have been saying to policy makers for some time that, in many ways, the ‘easy bits’ of improving our education system have been done. The next challenge is the greatest. 

All parties need to put their heads together to put in place a strategy to address the most deeply embedded, economic, educational and social disadvantage and low aspirations that beset some parts of the country. That will not be a question of ‘quick fixes’ but of patient perseverance.

It is ASCL members who will stand at the forefront of that work and lead the way forward for our system.

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary