It is a very long way from Kent to Exeter and back on a south west train. I am writing this on my journey home from a very good south west ASCL branch meeting generously hosted by one of our Council members in that region. We had a good input from Bradley Simmons, the Ofsted regional lead for the south west, who addressed refreshingly frankly both current Ofsted priorities and challenges the inspection service will be facing in the future. It was both encouraging and worrying to note that he tacitly accepted that some of our criticisms of Ofsted were well understood, and, indeed, that there was now an opportunity for change. Ofsted promises to be a major ASCL Annual Conference theme!
Earlier this week I was in Sheffield at the ASCL ‘Closing the Gap’ Conference. Great plenary speakers and powerful case studies of schools which have worked miracles with the least advantaged children – the moral purpose and values of those schools shone though – really humbling. There was lots of discussion of the Pupil Premium – is it or is it not ring fenced? The official answer is that it is not – nothing is ring fenced in school funding now. But then you have to account for its spending and impact, and woe betide you if your FSM students are not performing as well as non-FSMs nationally: Ofsted will be after you! This is a clear demonstration of the tension between school autonomy on the one hand and accountability pressures on the other.
How do we get the balance right between legitimate national priorities – the achievement of the least advantaged is rightly one – and governments using the high stakes accountability system we have in the shape of Ofsted effectively to manage – some would say ‘micro-manage’ – school decision making on the other? Not an easy conundrum.
And to continue the story of my week, yesterday I was at the Independent Academies Association (IAA) Spring Conference at Highbury – whoops, Emirates Stadium! The last time I entered an Arsenal stadium was in about 1977 when it was the old Highbury ground, and I stood on the terraces at the old ‘clock end’. I was glad to see the clock had survived the move, but the stadium is transformed. All glass and steel and stylish curves – for airflow to the pitch, we were told.
Anyway, back to the really important stuff: the conference! Andrew Adonis gave an accomplished notes-free address, subbing for Michael Gove who had sent his last minute apologies. As did Tristram Hunt last Sunday on Andrew Neil, he made a valiant attempt to differentiate Labour from coalition policy, and in doing so was convincing in places, but also appeared to concede to a significant extent that there was convergence across the piece on a wide range of core issues. For example on careers guidance he was clear that in his view the solution to the current dearth of proper careers guidance in schools is not a new national careers service. It has to be schools’ responsibility, he said. They just have to do it better. Well, well...
The plenary at the IAA conference featured Frank Green, the newly appointed Schools Commissioner. Meeting Frank always makes me feel young. Not because he is particularly old, or I particularly young, but because he was the deputy head in the school where I first started teaching in Brighton in 1985! The ‘probationer’ (as we were called before NQTs were invented) in me returns!
ASCL Annual Conference is now full. When we began the planning process back in the summer and launched in the autumn it felt a bit like inviting people to a party and not knowing if they would really come. But they have, you have, which is fantastic. I look forward to seeing you there. And if you are one of the unlucky ones who can’t make it, it will be possible by the wonders of modern technology to follow much of it live online via the ASCL website.
And now the drinks trolley has finally made it to my seat, so good night!