Last week, I had the honour of launching my presidential year at the ASCL Cymru conference, coinciding with the launch of ASCL Cymru’s Leading the way: Blueprint for a Self-improving System in Wales.
ASCL Cymru has played a leading role in shaping the educational agenda this year and its voice is respected and heard by key stakeholders. This has particularly been the case when that voice belongs to Eithne Hughes and I would like to thank Eithne for her magnificent work as president.
I believe 2016 is when we will see a fundamental turning point in the educational history of Wales; our association has a leading role to play in re-shaping this system in order to unleash its undoubted greatness. Over the last few years reform has been both rapid and significant and we have accepted that increased accountability has been the inevitable driving force behind improving standards. However, increased accountability can only take us so far and has led to a compliance mind-set in which constrains some schools and reduces their ambition.
2016 therefore, has to be different and we need a confident and creative approach. This is the essence of the ASCL Blueprint: our vision for the future where the self-improving system becomes a reality.
We have been set a clear challenge to re-design our curriculum so that it fully meets the needs of all our children and young people. Qualified for Life provides us with clarity of purpose and direction, setting out a mandate to innovate and experiment to create this curriculum. The emphasis placed upon enterprise and creativity is therefore particularly welcome, and those schools selected as Lead Creative Schools will have an opportunity to show the way.
Huw Lewis, Minister for Education and Skills, stated his ambition for our new curriculum to be available by 2018; an ambitious timescale which relies on school leaders driving forward the necessary changes. Pioneer schools will have the key responsibility of preparing this new curriculum and leading change. The concept is a good one, but does not come without pitfalls, not least capacity with key staff, avoidance of a two tier system amongst selected schools and the need for fully funded programmes. As school leaders, pioneers or not, we have a duty to ensure the four purposes outlined in Successful Futures are embedded in our everyday practice. Do all our teachers in all subjects in all classrooms prepare and deliver a curriculum to meet those four purposes? Are our teachers and middle leaders considering how they can strengthen their practice and pedagogy? Does everyone have the ambition and capacity to do so? 2016 therefore must be a time of reflection across the whole education workforce and in every educational setting to enable the new curriculum to exist in every classroom. The proposed New Deal for teachers must improve the impact of teaching on learning in every classroom and is an essential component for change.
Moving away from a mechanistic view
ASCL’s Blueprint sets out an exciting vision to drive these changes, referring to Professor Donaldson’s powerful review which unleashed a huge energy in the profession. It also declares that the whole education system in Wales mobilises around a common mission and has collectively decided to move away from the mechanistic view of the curriculum as narrow framework of subject content. If we are honest, I am sure we will state that in so many ways subject content still takes precedent over the key purposes. We have to ensure that the subject serves the curriculum and its purposes, rather than the reverse.
The establishment of Qualifications Wales as an independent regulator is also a very positive development. They have a task on their hands to ensure that the qualifications on offer reflect the key purposes of the curriculum, whilst at the same time ensuring that children and young people are provided with outstanding educational experiences enabling them to progress in their lives and careers. The pace of change is dazzling at times and our workforce needs the time, training and resources to ensure that delivery in the classroom is good enough. There is concern that resources are prepared too late and information regarding changes is too slow in being communicated. A whole new suite of qualifications will be introduced in 2016 and at present, information in some areas is not available. This needs to change quickly.
We are into the second year of the National Categorisation programme. As an association we have welcomed the Welsh Government’s willingness to listen and amend the accountability framework – and it is fairer. We understand the emphasis placed on standards achieved by children from disadvantaged backgrounds and we have a moral imperative to do all we can to reduce the impact of disadvantage on educational performance. Whatever the case, school accountability drives all, and the pressure on Headteachers and school leaders is more intense than it has ever been.
It is inevitable, that schools will, at times, feel the need to narrow their focus in order to meet the requirements placed on them, particularly if they feel constrained. Headteachers in challenging circumstances often head for the bunker when they feel besieged, however, it is our job as leaders to make hope practical and despair less convincing. In order to drive change forward we need to feel confident that we will have the backing, support and resources to help us. Underperformance does need challenge but there needs to be an equivalent level of support so that schools survive and prosper. ASCL’s Blueprint advocates a more streamlined and simplified accountability process, underpinned by the concept of earned autonomy and substantial school-to-school partnership through professional learning alliances. In many cases, school to school support is happening and having a positive impact, but it is not widespread enough yet.
My school has been identified as operating in challenging circumstances - and we still are, but we have benefited from being a ‘Pathways to Success’ school as part of the Schools Challenge Cymru programme. We have been given the licence to innovate, with additional support and resources to help us, providing confidence to experiment with new approaches and ideas. It is the right approach and I am determined that Schools Challenge will have a sustained impact on how my school operates. The difficulty for school leaders in challenging circumstances is to ensure a positive psychology permeates the school community where all adults believe that all children can succeed, regardless of perceptions about innate intelligence or economic background.
The impact of swathing cuts in post-16 funding, together with increases to schools’ contributions to national insurance and pension costs has been devastating for some schools who now face huge deficits. Belts have been tightened through extensive restructuring and cutting of staff although the situation is exacerbated by reliance on annual grants, duplication of funding, and antiquated funding formulae operated by local authorities unreflective of the reality of revised pay and conditions. ASCL is proposing the swift introduction of a fair and equitable national funding formula to devolve at least 95 per cent of funding to schools on the principle of subsidiarity.
If we are to be given the trust and responsibility to improve our system ourselves, then we need the tools to do the job. Now is the time to invest in our workforce, to build their expertise and make the New Deal for teachers a reality for everyone. If we are ambitious for change then we need to show our commitment through fair funding and increased investment.
Thomas Sankara, the Che Guevara of Africa and former president of Burkino Faso, once stated: “It took the madmen of yesteryear for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.”
Read ASCL’s Blueprint, a radical vision for the future – let’s be mad enough to make it happen.