During the tenure of the coalition government, there has been a stated commitment to move towards a school-led education system, through reducing regulation and devolving responsibility to autonomous but accountable institutions.
As with many well-intentioned resolutions, however, we know that governments find the reality of letting go very difficult; hence we have seen levers such as the accountability and qualifications systems used as a proxy for regulation.
The previous Labour government used ring fenced budgets as a means to influence schools’ priorities. Until now, this approach has been mostly rejected by the current government, something ASCL welcomed. However it would appear that there has been a shift in approach. Two ‘pots’ of money have been announced recently: £5m for the development of ‘character’ and £2m to address homophobic bullying.
ASCL absolutely recognises the importance of both of these initiatives and welcomes the emphasis given to them by the Secretary of State. The development of ‘character’, along with other qualities, is fundamental to a rounded education which prepares young people for life in the 21st century. Addressing bullying of all kinds needs to be a priority in every school.
However, if this money is spread around all schools it would be equivalent to around £800 and £200 per school respectively. If allocated by any other method it will only reach some schools. While the £million figure makes a good headline I would question how that particular lever can make a discernible difference in each and every school.
My real concern is that there is no new money. In a period of austerity, when basic provision is at risk in many schools due to funding constraints, I worry about pots of money being siphoned off for specific purposes. In the pre-election period I can foresee many more such announcements as manifesto commitments are made. I fear for the consequences.
So what could be done? One option would be to simply put all of the funding into the formula, regulate for what governments want all schools to do and let school leaders use their professional expertise and judgement to decide the most appropriate ways to meet those requirements.
The other would be to expect all schools to address these priorities, and trust our highly accountable profession to deliver. Too naïve?
Leading a school often has been compared with spinning plates. Every day tough decisions need to be made in order to balance competing priorities. The problems come when the school’s priorities, driven by a clearly understood vision, are undermined by externally imposed change which is rushed and ill-planned.
We believe that in a self-improving system, the government’s role is to work with the profession to develop a slim, smart and stable intelligent accountability framework with a small number of ambitious goals. That means resisting the temptation to introduce political levers and voter-friendly headlines. Is that too big of an ask? Certainly it is not an easy or comfortable option, but it is the way we will create a world-class education system.
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