Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Drawing on core values

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Secondary schools are the hub of multi-agency working in the Children's Plan but they need more freedom from top-down government if they are to fulfil the plan's aspirations, says John Dunford.

When public trust in politicians is about the same as estate agents and trust in school leaders is so high, it is hardly surprising that politicians have acted as if schools can solve all the problems of society; that they can de-stratify this most unequal of Western societies. They can't - and Ed Balls has recognised in the Children's Plan that we can only begin to deliver on his expectations if the other services play their part.

The Headspace survey provides evidence of our strong perception that many children's services departments are not yet delivering. Secondary schools can - and do - deliver the education service largely without them. But to deliver the wider children's service and to ensure the joined-up approach that is at the core of the Children's Plan requires local authorities to get their act together - and quickly.

Although it is the responsibility of local authorities to produce a strategy for joined-up working, it is secondary schools that are at the centre of the multi-agency leadership of the service, as Steve Munby of the National College for School Leadership has led the way in pointing out. The Children's Plan has much to say about parents as 'partners in learning' with some specific proposals and some ambitious aims. Schools have an obligation to communicate well with parents and consult them, but ministers should not micro-manage schools by telling us how to do it. The parental agenda should not be about parents' councils (certainly not statutory councils), but about working with parents as co-educators.

Of course it's essential that schools give parents high quality information about their children's progress. Real-time reporting is a legitimate goal which will do more than anything to bring school-parent communications to a new level. But Becta and the Government must provide schools with the IT capacity to produce these reports without additional workload on staff and school leaders... and with the Government's record on major IT projects, it may take some time to put in place a fully reliable system.

And so we have in 2008 a new situation. Central government with high aspirations for the future of young people; local government seriously weakened but essential if the wider children's agenda is to be delivered successfully; and school and college leaders high in public esteem, increasingly strong in performance and developing new systems of communication with students and parents.

Omission of priorities

One of the features of the Children's Plan is that it builds on success after many years of talking up failure. The big omission in the plan was any sense of priorities, any kind of an implementation plan, and I am pleased that the Government has responded to my plea for this by promising an implementation plan shortly. The mis-fired announcement about five hours of culture showed how much we need such a plan.

So far ministers have avoided the temptation to stray beyond the ample agenda of the plan into 'initiativitis'. But the announcement count, as evidenced by the number of press releases issued by the DCSF, is growing - so we are watching the situation carefully. Fortunately they have reached nowhere near the peak of activity during the Blunkett era.

At the Labour party conference last September I attended a fringe meeting on a question on which ASCL has some long-held well-informed views: 'Top-down versus front line. Who should run our public services?' It is a critical question in the context of the new alignment I am proposing.

There are, said the Culture (then-Treasury) Minister, Andy Burnham, limits to top-down reform and centrally set targets. These create a climate in which there is no ownership of policy at local level and a divide between front-line staff and politicians. Ministers, he said, need to set big goals and then let staff at the front line set bottom-up targets, to which they will then be firmly committed.

A successful example of this would be that ministers say that they want more personalised services; we make personalised learning a reality. As is happening, thanks to the work of ASCL and SSAT.

At the same meeting, Professor Anthony Giddens took this further, calling for a new contract between professionals and consumers. The days when consultants swept magisterially round the wards, spreading fear among staff and patients alike, are gone, Giddens said. No longer should the doctor-patient relationship be encapsulated by the story of the consultant at the bedside who said: "The patient is dead." "No, I'm not," said the patient. "Be quiet," said the nurse, "Doctor knows best."

Robert Hill has taken this argument further, calling for more school leader involvement in policy making, but pointing to the other side of that coin. If we want more influence over government policy, more devolution to the front line and bottom-up targets, we have to be as responsive to students and parents as we want the government to be to school and college leaders.

High-sided bunkers

In our espousal of school councils and student voice, our surveys of parent and student opinion for self-evaluation, our willingness to move to real-time reporting, and much more, secondary school and college leaders have shown how they have moved from the high-sided bunkers in which many of our predecessors worked to modern leadership that is sensitive to the needs and views of our stakeholders. Many schools and colleges are already doing excellent work in this field. More will need to step up their game to meet the increased expectations in this area.

ASCL has been strongly championing the partnership agenda and it is good to see that, through many different types of partnership, successful schools are supporting schools in difficulties and thus raising standards for all.

Achieving More Together, ASCL's research project examining the benefits of collaboration, will act as a catalyst for further collaboration, a menu for those partnerships to be successful and a checklist for the Government to put in place the policies in which partnership working can thrive. That is the best way forward for the school and college system.

And it is the way forward for school and college leadership, not only leading our own institutions, but being co-leaders of the education service in the area.

As Ben Page, managing director of the influential research body Ipsos MORI told ASCL conference last year, we are the success story of the past decade. Why? Because we do what successful leaders do - communicate well, establish and maintain a clear ethos rooted in values, listen to our stakeholders, focus on what matters most, raise aspirations, distribute leadership, invest in people, and smile. And the best of us are courageous and take risks, remembering the dictum: 'It is better to plead forgiveness than ask permission.'

Leadership is the sine qua non of school improvement. As Professor Ken Leithwood puts it: As far as we are aware, there is not a single documented case of a school successfully turning round its pupil achievement trajectory in the absence of talented leadership.

As well as the optimism that we have to show in our leadership if we are to inspire others to achieve great things, we have to remove bad practice. We have to be prepared to deal with under-performance, in our own school and in our collaboratives, preferably before the complaints come rolling in, and very speedily if they do. It means demanding of our partners in other institutions the same high standards as we try to uphold with our own staff and students.

Narrowing the gap

And, in spite of all the social difficulties I outlined earlier, we have to address the biggest challenge of all - closing the attainment gap. This is a task that can only be done by schools, and schools and colleges, working in partnership, supported by well coordinated local services. It is a mammoth leadership task, for which there is no magic solution, only hard graft and the exercise of the very best leadership.

I have tried to set out the scenario for the future in which we can achieve progress on narrowing the gap, supporting schools in difficulties, and on our other challenges. The future is here already in many places:

Just as we demand less top-down prescription from the Government and more bottom-up targets set by the institution, and policies more conducive to collaboration than competition, so we are rising to the challenge of being more responsive and drawing students and parents more into the target-setting and policy-making process at institution and partnership level.

Many schools and colleges are well on the way to doing these things already and I am confident that we have reached the point where we can demand of the Government the policies that will help us to lead strong, autonomous institutions, empowered to collaborate.

We support the Children's Plan because it goes with the grain of what we came into school and college leadership to achieve, but the plan needs to be backed by a realistic and manageable reform programme. It is the members of this association through which much of the plan will be implemented and led. That places an immense responsibility on school and college leaders, but it is one that we accept - provided that we are freed from some of the regulatory constraints under which we work and which reduce our flexibility and frustrate our creativity.

Every one of us wants to invent a better future for young people and to lead the way in creating it.

This is an extract from John Dunford's speech to ASCL's 2008 annual conference.

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