October 2014


  • Missing the mark
    ASCL’s warnings about the danger of piecemeal changes to GCSE were realised in the volatility of this year’s results, says Brian Lightman. However the real worry is the damaging effect it is having on our most disadvantaged students. More
  • Ideas take flight
    The need for an authentically school-led system was one of the key conclusions to emerge from ASCL’s Great Education Debate (GED). Here, Leora Cruddas spells out the blueprint for how it may be achieved. More
  • Joined-up thinking
    A new £22m scheme aims to capitalise on the power of networking to encourage more young people into HE and raise the profile of university outreach programmes, as Clair Murphy explains. More
  • Brighter Twilight
    ASCL’s learning after school programmes for would-be senior leaders are proving a popular alternative to the ‘sheep-dip model’ of Inset training days. Liz Lightfoot reports. More
  • The verdict
    After more than a year of passionate discussion, the Great Education Debate (GED) has concluded. Here, we record the key findings and explain the next steps for ASCL and the profession. More
  • Root causes
    Andrew Thraves looks at how attitudinal surveys can help senior leaders understand the causes of challenging behaviour and provide evidence of improvement when inspectors come calling. More
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After more than a year of passionate discussion, the Great Education Debate (GED) has concluded. Here, we record the key findings and explain the next steps for ASCL and the profession.

The verdict

It seems unlikely now but there was a time in the 1970s when the idea of government telling heads and teachers what and how to teach was seen as an abuse of power.

When then-Prime Minister Jim Callaghan launched his own great education debate in 1976 he was condemned by critics appalled at a politician, even a PM, attempting to question the expertise and knowledge of a profession held in high regard by parents and the wider public.

Almost four decades on and the profession has become accustomed to the central role that politicians now take in determining the vision, strategy and content for education nationally. Until now. 

The overriding theme emerging from ASCL’s own GED was the need for schools, leaders and teachers to take responsibility for driving improvement across the system, a view based not on teacher instinct or desire for control but on hard evidence from around the world of the benefits that accrue to young people when top-quality educators lead the way.

The idea arose out of the series of passionate debates that took place over 12 months with contributions from leading figures in education nationally and internationally. Below is a summary of the discussions, the key strands of education policy and practice that they identified and the key issues that they raise for leaders, together with an indication of how ASCL plans to take forward these ideas and the aim to create a self-improving system that is led by schools themselves. 

Overview of the debate

The GED was an attempt to establish a broad consensus about how to improve the education system and fashion a vision that both the profession and the government could take forward.

The debate was lively, and there were disagreements about tactics, if not fundamentals. Contributors were drawn from all sides of the education field and included students as well as teachers, heads, academics and policy makers, national and international. 

Vision and purpose

This was the starting point with questions framed by Education Consultant Robert Hill:

  • Is a national statement on the purpose of education required?
  • If so, what should be in it?
  • How can we build a broad base of support for a statement of educational purpose?

Contributors pinpointed three elements for a collective vision. 

The first is achievement for all. Work on closing the achievement gap between different groups of young people has been going on for decades, so why has the gap not closed?

Still on achievement, Ian Bauckham, ASCL President 2013-14, cited US Psychologist Carol Dweck in his point about the dangers of closed mindsets that manifest in parents who, for example, categorise their children as ‘not very good at maths’. There was a similar risk with some of the terms used in schools to classify educational potential, Ian added: “‘Bright’, ‘high-ability’, ‘low-ability’, ‘intelligent’ are traded without thinking, as if they are givens.”

What is needed, in fact, is a belief that excellence in achievement is possible for all, hard though it may be to realise.

The second element was the vital importance of the professional skill of teachers. There is a worldwide consensus that quality of teaching, rather than structural change, is critical to improvement. As Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education (IOE), put it: “Above all, there is a belief – from Helsinki to Singapore, from Ontario to Shanghai – in the moral purpose, professional skill and overwhelming importance of teachers. Educational reform is not a mystery. We know what to do.”

David Hopkins, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Education, did sound a warning about the dangers of faddism – the tendency to pick up new or popular ideas that are adopted in a superficial way. The idea for a national college of teaching to act as the lead body in setting teacher standards was also mooted by Sir Tim Brighouse, Chair of the New Visions for Education Group. 

Collaboration was the third key element identified on the basis that, just like a sports team, teachers are most effective when they collaborate and so exceed the quality of the individual players. David Hopkins emphasised the need for collaboration to be about more than ‘networking’ but rooted in evidence and channelled in a robust and vigorous way.

Leadership and learning

Part two of the debate explored leadership and learning with three more themes emerging.

A compelling curriculum vision is needed. Sir Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, Berkshire, described the need for an organic model that sees each young person as unique, and there was a call by student contributors Cameron Butt and Jordan Buck from Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby not to overlook the need for education to be “enjoyable, stimulating and relevant”.

Active engagement by young people in their own learning was seen as a strong second element, developing rich pedagogical practice. There is much to learn from vocational learning in areas such as teamwork and problemsolving, offered Lynne Sedgmore, Executive Director of the 157 Group of further education (FE) colleges.

Third, the need for strong assessment strategy and practices was agreed but the point was emphasised that the crude polarisation that puts knowledge measured by exams in one corner and skills measured by more flexible assessment in the other is unhelpful. Formative and summative assessment both have a role to play.

Leadership challenge

After the explorations of vision and learning, the debate turned to leadership and drew out three challenges for leaders.

John West-Burnham, Consultant in Leadership Development, opened this part with a call for not just progressive change but radical transformation, comparing it to how the need for greater speed in early 20th-century aircraft was ultimately solved not by refining the existing technology – the propeller – but by the invention of a brand new one: the jet engine.

The challenge to Imagine the future was an acknowledgement that the demands on education are changing, the world we are preparing young people for is in rapid and constant change and that there is a need to respond to that change.

What do we mean by creating value in education? In an age where knowledge is available on the Internet and skills are routinely outsourced, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s) (OECD’s) Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher posited that value lies elsewhere – in creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and judgement; and about ways of working, such as collaboration. Yet it does not mean abandoning knowledge content; it is about nurturing knowledge, certain behaviours and particular qualities like resilience and a mindset to succeed.

Finally, in discussions on leading the system, there was recognition that ours is good but not yet great. The 2010 McKinsey & Company report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, says the ‘good’ to ‘great’ journey marks the point at which the school system comes to rely largely on the values and behaviours of its educators, rather than central policies or prescription.


The overall conclusion of the GED was that it is time for the profession to grasp the challenges of improving the system and make the leap towards the next phase in system leadership: to define what a self-improving, school-led system looks like, and then move towards it.

In line with this, ASCL has published a draft blueprint for a self-improving, school-led system and is inviting views on the proposals.


Rounding off the Great Education Debate, ASCL 2014-15 President Peter Kent made a final point: if the GED proposals are to be acted upon, there has to be more trust in the system. Suspicion of schools from the centre that, in turn, has generated suspicion of government and its institutions among schools and leaders, has prevented us from acting on what we know would make schools improve, he emphasised.

Ultimately, in order to bring about transformation across the system, “We need a culture built on trust.”

For further information, see Leading for the Future: A Summation of the Great Education Debate www.ascl.org.uk/leading-for-the-future

To comment on the ASCL blueprint go to www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint

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