Some time has elapsed since my last ASCL blog – apologies to anyone who was on the edge of their seat awaiting it! As the end of this extraordinary year draws to a close, I have been increasingly balancing my ASCL presidential duties with a focus on my own school, to which I am looking forward to returning in September full-time. In so many ways, I will be a different headteacher to the one who left it last September to embark on the adventure and the challenge that ASCL presidency constitutes. On my return, I am certain that I will not only again relish leading a school but, particularly with the capacity developed by the fantastic team I work with there, be able to contribute further to leadership and improvement in the school system more widely.
On which note, I hope that you will soon become aware of an exciting new project ASCL is embarking on shortly. We are going to be looking in more depth at what the much discussed ‘school led’ or ‘self-improving’ school system actually looks like.
I know there will be a mixture of reactions to those phrases.
Some will say that the coalition government has simply accelerated and learnt from the general policy direction of the past 30 years towards greater school autonomy, and will cite the range of flagship initiatives such as academies, trusts, free schools, pay policy reform, curriculum and qualifications changes, teaching schools and ITE reforms, and most recently perhaps the newly established Headteacher Boards (HTBs), as ways in which the government has moved and is moving responsibility from government or LAs to school level.
Others will say that this is all an illusion, and that the immense and often capricious pressures from Ofsted, accountability, ‘predatory’ academy chains and ever diminishing funding, along with the stripping away of vocational qualifications and more applied and practical aspects of examinations has left them feeling more ‘done to’ than partners in a school led system.
Interestingly, my experience is that while there are certainly many school leaders who put themselves in one camp or the other, there are also many – possibly even the majority – who straggle both. Those who have at different times, or even simultaneously, felt acutely the pain or pressure of the latter, while also rising to the challenges of the former; who have both been critical, for example, of some qualifications or accountability changes, or, indeed, of Ofsted, whilst, also, perhaps entering into a multi-academy trust arrangement with other local schools, driven by moral purpose to improve outcomes, or set up and lead a teaching school alliance or free school. Grey is a more prevalent colour than black or white.
Not wishing to pre-empt the outcomes of the project we are embarking on, I will nonetheless offer a couple of early thoughts. It seems to me that one central question is to identify what the right responsibilities for the government are in a maximally autonomous school system. I would divide the government responsibilities into two groups: those which need to be done directly by government or a direct agency of the government on the one hand; and those which the government does not need to do directly, but does need to ensure get done somehow in the system – for these areas, it’s about creating the conditions which enable the functions to be discharged.
So, as a ‘starter for ten’, we could put the view that ultimately there are only two things the government must do directly through its own agency:
Establish a challenging and appropriate standards framework for student outcomes, in the form of benchmarks and public examinations, and provide transparent accountability for schools and the public in meeting these, without backsliding into trying to ‘manage’ processes or approaches within schools.
Ensure that schools are funded in such a way as to enable varying needs to be met fairly across the country and where appropriate, weighting funding to reflect particular social or other priorities.
Then, of the responsibilities which definitely need to be discharged, but possibly not directly via a government agency. So for areas for which conditions and incentives need to be created and maintained, we could include meeting the needs for school places locally, ensuring that there is an adequate supply of teachers locally and regionally, ensuring there is structural dynamism and opportunity for schools to work together flexibly to raise standards, and ensuring that conditions are created which maximise freedoms for school leadership to run schools in line with their vision and ambition, and minimise any restrictive practices which could inhibit the use of those freedoms.
These are just some initial thoughts. The project will hopefully be an educative one for all concerned and will no doubt result in challenges both for the government – they will certainly need to do more of some things, and less of others – and for school leaders, whose outlook and priorities will also be challenged as expectations evolve. I hope ASCL members will watch the project as it develops and feel free to contribute thoughts and ideas as we develop it.
Although it’s only day two back at work, half-term seems a long way away – I spent it trekking in the Tatras mountains in Slovakia searching for wild bears – yes really! And I found three – an amazing experience. And a great antidote to the raging controversies of the British education world.