Delivering a clear message

02 April 2015

Leader logoThe incoming government has a golden opportunity to work with the profession to create a world-class education system, says Brian Lightman ASCL General Secretary. But it will need to focus on a few key priorities.

As the general election draws ever closer, policy announcements rain down on us almost daily. At the same time all kinds of organisations representing different parts of the education system are publicising their own manifestos and priorities.

In such a crowded environment it would be easy to be distracted into reactive mode, becoming embroiled in party politics and losing sight of our own vision and priorities.

ASCL’s approach has been to distil the positions our Council has agreed on a vast range of aspects of policy down to a number of key messages and to focus sharply on these.

We believe that there are three top priorities for education reform that we want to see in all party manifestos. All of these are underpinned by a fundamental belief in education for the common good – that every child should be given the opportunity to succeed and that our ambition for the English education system at the very least matches that of policy makers.

The first, and most urgent, is a commitment to sufficient, equitable and sustainable funding for schools and colleges. In addition to funding increases in staff costs, this means developing and implementing a national funding formula that is fit for purpose and incorporates weighted funding for disadvantage.

School funding for five to 16 year-olds has been protected over the current Parliament but the reality of ‘flat cash’ has meant that funding has remained static at best, while general inflation and pay rises have put additional pressure on budgets.

Funding for 16 to 18 year-olds has not been protected at all, meaning that budgets have been dramatically reduced over the last five years.

The commitment from the Prime Minister to a continuation of ‘flat cash’ throughout the next Parliament but only for five to 16 year-olds means, in reality, significant cuts in front-line provision.

Limit to cuts

Schools and colleges have made efficiency savings over the last five years but there is a limit to how many corners they can cut.

Since at least 2005, ASCL has been urging governments to change the funding formula so that it takes into account the cost of a basic entitlement for all young people, plus the additional resources that are targeted at those pupils who need additional support.

The government recognised that there was inequity in the current system and distributed an additional £390m to the lowest funded authorities in 2014. While this was welcome it does not remove the inherent inequalities in the existing funding system.

The move towards a national funding formula that incorporates weighted funding for disadvantage, and that is equitable at the point of delivery, sufficient and sustainable will not be easy. It needs to be modelled and planned carefully with our full involvement, and implemented over a three-year period.

Smart accountability

The second priority is our commitment to a smart, slim and stable accountability system with a small number of ambitious goals. This includes a nationally determined progress measure to incentivise improvement and fundamental, far-reaching changes to inspection so that it is again seen as reliable and accurate. Inspection should help to drive improvement by being supportive rather than punitive.

The primary role of the inspectorate is to independently hold schools and colleges to account on behalf of taxpayers and parents, and report on the quality of education. Therefore, inspection should report on the effectiveness of the school or college, based on an assessment of its outcomes.

These outcomes would reflect core, defined areas agreed on in collaboration with the profession. They would be published for each institution each year and would form the basis of an annual risk assessment.

Part of the current unreliability of inspection judgements stems from the requirement that inspectors make decisions about the effectiveness of processes based on limited information gathered in the short time available. Therefore, we believe that judgements about processes should be removed from inspection, other than compliance with statutory health and safety and safeguarding requirements.

The constant tinkering with the current framework, the inconsistency and unreliability of the current inspection grades, and potential of job losses as a result of a poor inspection outcome have combined to create a culture of fear and mistrust around inspections. As a result, schools and colleges feel pressed towards a narrow, compliance model based around what they think inspectors want to see.

ASCL wants to see a new model of inspection that re-establishes trust and respect, so that school and college leaders can build capacity and develop a growth mindset that does not conform to perceived preferred practices. ASCL will continue to work with senior officials to create an inspection framework that is fit for purpose and contributes to a self-improving, school-led system.

Enabling role

Third, ASCL believes that the next government must move towards a more strategic, enabling role in education, which creates the conditions for school and college leaders to step up and drive improvement. What prevents them from working effectively is constant, ad hoc, imposed change that means that they cannot prepare and plan properly. It creates unnecessary workload and takes time away from the important role in teaching and learning.

We expect to see a commitment to a five-year vision for the education system – set in consultation with the profession – that is planned, properly resourced and coherent.

I advocated such an approach when we initiated the Great Education Debate. Our blueprint for a self-improving system sets out our vision in much greater detail and will form the basis for discussion with the incoming government. It calls on the next government to step back and hand over the impetus for leading the system.

ASCL members agree that education should not and cannot stand still. They welcome change that is in the best interests of young people in the knowledge that it must be strategically planned and well communicated. They want to be agents of change themselves, taking shared responsibility for improving the quality of education.

ASCL will continue to work with school and college leaders and government to create the conditions for a self-improving system so that ministers and officials feel able to step back and trust practitioners to drive improvement.

An incoming government has a golden opportunity to draw on the enthusiasm, energy and skill of our profession to work within a culture of trust and respect. This, we believe, is the key to making our schools and colleges world-class.

Our schools are already more effective than they have ever been; most are good or outstanding. The improvements of the last decade should be recognised and celebrated. We are now ready and indeed determined to improve further.L84-GenSec

We therefore call on all political parties to acknowledge publicly the great improvements that have been made in education and to recognise that the quality of teachers and leaders is better than it has ever been as we work collaboratively into the next stage of our system’s development.