Time for a new discourse - trusting school leaders

11 May 2015

Trust-usTired rhetoric about failing schools on one side and government interference on the other must end, Brian Lightman told this year’s ASCL Annual Conference. It’s time for a new discourse, one based on trusting school leaders.

In March, we launched Leading the Way – our vision for a self-improving system that places school and college leaders in the driving seat.

That blueprint is based on a level of ambition and determination for the education system that surpasses anything that has gone before.

We are, I believe, on the cusp of a unique opportunity for a deep-seated and powerful culture change in our education system in which ASCL members will play a leading role.

It is an opportunity that no future government and no school or college leader can afford to ignore; it is an opportunity to lift our sights and spirits and to develop an education system grounded in what I’m going to call ‘trusted leadership’.

High ambitions

In a trusted leadership system we will celebrate and share what is going well and talk openly, without blame, about weaknesses. We must allow that kind of honesty and recognise that, just as even the best teacher in the world sometimes has lessons that don’t go to plan, the best schools have areas for development.

We need everyone to speak the language of high ambitions – a language that starts from the premise that while most schools are ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ we must improve further. We have a good system that we need to become great. The day we stop raising our aspirations and expectations we may as well go home.

So it requires a whole new discourse; a brand new set of rules of engagement. One that:

  • continually questions what more we can do

  • reflects the educational researcher, Michael Fullan’s, definition of connected autonomy in which we work together – with colleagues, with other schools – to test one another’s ideas and thoughts, being willing to rethink our approach and learn from our mistakes

  • engages with the government to create the conditions for our education system to flourish with ministers, stepping back from any temptation to micromanage professional decisions

  • is based on a ‘can-do’ culture driven by positive, proactive leadership in all parts of the system

Demands on the curriculum

The concept of trusted leadership makes big demands on all parties and rightly so. And nowhere are those demands greater than in curriculum and assessment.

For too long discussion about the curriculum has focused obsessively on assessment linked to qualifications and accountability. And I am pleased that the Secretary of State has recognised the damaging effects of, to use her own words, an “obsession with assessment”, which I interpret as summative assessment for the qualifications framework.

Summative assessment is important, but it is formative assessment that must be at the heart of pedagogical practice because it is the key to pupil progress.

For school leaders the starting point for curriculum planning has to be the school’s own vision for the education it will provide. In our blueprint, we have proposed a broad, nationally defined, core curriculum framework. It would be determined by an independent commission for curriculum review with representatives from school leaders, governors, teachers, parents, employers and politicians that analyses the framework once, and once only, every five years.

The framework would draw on research collated by an independent National Evidence Centre for Education. This centre would feed national and international evidence of best practice into national policy and into the professional practice of teachers and school leaders.

Beyond that, schools would build their own curriculum, bringing creativity, dynamism and relevance to curriculum development.

To achieve this requires a climate in which professionals are trusted to use their expertise to make the right decisions and government is trusted to create the conditions for a world-class education system.

This would be underpinned by a slim, smart and stable accountability framework and a qualifications system that measures learning outcomes but is not constrained by accountability methods that distort practice in ways that can be so damaging to a good education.

Changing the assessment framework

Although assessment for external qualifications has dominated recent discussions about education policy, assessment as an integral part of teaching is equally important. It is certainly a skill that other countries emphasise far more strongly in their teacher education and professional development.

Unless the science and methodology of assessment is included in teacher education and the body of knowledge that underpins professional practice, the profession risks becoming over-reliant on external testing and the curriculum being reduced to a straitjacket of what can be assessed in a written test.

First, teachers need access to professional knowledge and skill in assessing how students are making progress.
Second, we need an ethics framework for assessment, led by the profession, which would help to end the destructive allegations of ‘gaming’ the system. We are very pleased to be involved in some work that Ofqual is undertaking on exactly this kind of framework.

The recent debate about practical science has demonstrated just how important these changes are.

If our vision for the curriculum says that practicals are important, then let’s do them! And if it is good practice, why not build the outcomes of practical work into the final exam grade?

The challenge here to policy makers and the regulator is to trust the teaching profession. It means moving from the low-trust system that produces answers like logbooks of student assessments, laboriously and bureaucratically completed in order to provide evidence of compliance.

But the profession needs to show that it is up to this challenge, too – that we are willing to explore pedagogical, professional matters, to develop our expertise and, instead of abandoning practicals because they are ‘not in the exam’, do what is right for the students.

Our message to politicians

For our ambitious vision to become a reality, there are some specifics we expect the new government to address.

At the top of the list is a fair and equitable funding system pre- and post-16. The current government has taken the first tentative steps. The next government must be bold and introduce a National Fair Funding Formula and they must do it quickly.

We have to accept, however, that the country still has economic difficulties. The reality is that there will have to be some redistribution of the existing budget and this will lead to funding falling in some schools, as well as rising in some others.

We therefore need predictability about the pace of change so that we can manage it without damaging the education or welfare of children in our care.

More money is needed for 16-18 education. We cannot continue to be expected to provide a world-class education for increasing numbers when the level of funding is woefully inadequate.

And we cannot pretend that a promise of ‘flat cash’ or a 2 per cent annual increase in the education budget will solve our financial problems. Not when the employers’ pensions and National Insurance (NI) contribution increases, pay rises and general inflation already mean at least an extra 4.5 per cent increase in annual costs.

We also need the new government to ensure that schools and colleges can recruit and retain the highest calibre of staff. Schools all over the country face unprecedented difficulties recruiting trainees, qualified teachers, middle and senior leaders. The new government must act urgently to put in place processes to model numbers of teachers needed in each sector and region and then promote the status and value of teaching as a profession.

Trusted leadership goes both ways. Working with government, ASCL will always do what all good leaders do: offer solutions and focus single-mindedly on education for the common good.

You and I get up in the morning because we passionately want every child to be given the opportunity to succeed. Governments and the profession may differ over the best ways to achieve it but we all share that aim.

Our blueprint sets out a new way of working together – a new relationship predicated on trust and a shared vision.

Brian Lightman is ASCL General Secretary.