Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A question of trust

Man jumping through hoops

Schools and colleges should be given credit for the work they do in developing pupils' overall wellbeing, says John Dunford, but certainly not with national targets that become yet another inspection hoop.

One of my jobs as general secretary is to read the government documents that ASCL members don't have time to open and tell you the bits you need to know. Fortunately, ASCL has some extremely able staff who share in this task or I would sink under its weight, such is the current volume of papers from the government and its agencies.

Fortunately for ASCL members, lots of these papers do not have to go on the 'essential reading' pile. One such document is Children's Trusts: Statutory guidance on inter-agency cooperation to improve well-being of children, young people and families.

ASCL branch secretaries, however, should certainly read it and ask the local authority what they are doing about it and what part local schools will play in the trust.

The document states that there must be a "step change in the involvement of schools in children's trust arrangements". It says:

Schools have to be active partners in the planning and delivery arrangements under children's trusts, helping to define the priorities for their local area and agreeing how the whole pattern of local services best fits together to meet needs.

So what exactly are children's trusts? Broadly, they are local strategic bodies established in line with the Every Child Matters agenda to place "arrangements which put improved outcomes for children and young people at the centre of all activity".

So far, so much gobbledegook, motherhood and apple pie.

According to the DCSF, "Children's trusts have won wide acceptance." ASCL members may be forgiven for not having spotted this in their locality, since progress towards the formation of trusts has been slow.

Part of the problem is that children's trusts are intended to have such a wide-ranging remit that they may do nothing thoroughly or well.

The DCSF paper refers to improving outcomes for all children, giving support to individual schools in raising standards, promoting wellbeing, commissioning integrated services, challenging and supporting under-performing schools, providing oversight of careers services, making a reality of five hours' sport for every child, ensuring drug education takes place, aiding community cohesion, supporting the counter-terrorism strategy, creating partnership arrangements to reduce poverty, and so on.

How children's trusts will impact upon the work of schools is not clear, although the central message is important: measurable improvements will come only if there are identification and early intervention for all children who need additional help.

Cutting youth crime

The work of children's trusts is not, of course, confined to education. Health is a particularly important area, as is youth crime, where early identification of children at risk of falling into anti-social behaviour or crime requires many agencies to work effectively together.

In the UK there are 2,900 children in youth custody. In Finland there are five. In Finland there are clear strategies for tough early intervention, whereas in the UK some children seem to drift almost inexorably into bad ways without any effective means of stopping them.

Improving this situation is not only important for society, it is vital for schools and colleges, as they have to pick up the problems that could have been solved if the relevant agencies had acted sooner.

Schools and colleges accept that they have a role in the wider development of all young people. We all came into this profession to help young people maximise their potential and develop their talents. The moral purpose of what we do embraces both academic achievement and wider development. Indeed, academic development can be seen as part of that wider development.

Why is it, then, that the success of schools and colleges is measured solely on examination statistics and attendance? What credit is given for good work on wider development?

The answer, of course, is that examination results and attendance are easily (well, relatively easily, but that's an argument for another day) measured, whereas the school/college contribution to wider development is much harder to measure. The only part of wider development for which schools and colleges receive any plaudits is that which contributes to those narrow measures.

No measure, no credit

Especially through league tables, the measurable has come to be valued above - and perhaps to the exclusion - of all else. There is no credit for improving the unmeasurable.

This is by no means a problem solely for education. Type 'measure what we value' into Google and you have over 11 million hits. How can we measure the value of science, asks one article. How can the value of design be measured? And so on.

In the educational field, an article entitled 'We manage what we measure, so let's measure what we value' discusses the problems created for arts education by the difficulty of measuring its contribution to education. Reflecting on George Bush's education policy slogan of 'no child left behind', the writer states:

Since metrics are the mantra of public education these days (no statistic left behind), it's been difficult for arts education to maintain a stake in the larger conversation. Without hard numbers about the current state of arts education, neither policy-makers nor parents could argue in anything but vague and emotional terms.

It's the same for us in estimating the extent to which an institution contributes to the wider development of the young person.

In September 2006 ASCL expressed concern about accountability measures in relation to the development of the Every Child Matters agenda and Matters agenda and extended schools provision, which threaten to wipe out any gains thus far in making accountability more intelligent.

Yet we would like to see greater credit being given to schools and colleges for their work in this field.

So it was with a degree of trepidation that the president-elect, Jane Lees, and I found ourselves at a meeting in the DCSF discussing an early draft of a government paper on 'school-level indicators of pupil wellbeing'.

A week later, somebody leaked it to the Guardian and the story made the front page headline. 'Schools may be judged on teenage pregnancy rates and drug problems', screamed the headline.

ASCL will fight hard to bring a degree of intelligent accountability into this arena. We know that the Children's Plan commits the government to developing strong school level indicators that taken together measure a school's contributions to pupil wellbeing and that it has asked Ofsted to reflect these indicators in the cycle of inspections starting in 2009.

But we believe that the accountability system must take into account the extent to which schools are only partly responsible for children's wellbeing and the new climate in which many services are delivered in partnerships.

Schools are about learning. They make a contribution to wellbeing and view this as very important, but it is only part of what schools do.

The Children's Plan is about children's, not just pupils', wellbeing. School is only a part of their lives. The vast majority of the risks to children occur outside school and are completely outside the control of schools. The DCSF must not make the mistake of acting as if schools operate in isolation and carry the full accountability for these issues.

Nor can these indicators be in addition to existing accountability measures, the list of which has already grown to mind-numbing proportions.

Readers' wellbeing

I do not have the space here to set out fully the detailed ASCL case or the full set of DCSF proposals for measuring pupil wellbeing which would, in any case, be extremely bad for readers' wellbeing. (Come to think of it, 'government-level indicators of ASCL members' wellbeing' might be a useful performance indicator for the secretary of state and I think that I could measure it pretty easily ... workload, consumption of red wine, that sort of thing...)

The ASCL view is that it is legitimate to give credit to schools and colleges for their work on the wider development of the young person, but that this must be done in a way that we could describe as intelligent accountability.

The tools are already there. There is a legal obligation on schools to develop pupil wellbeing and, from September 2008, Ofsted will be inspecting this. School self-evaluation, as reported in the SEF, includes surveys of young people and their parents that include questions on matters of wellbeing. The school improvement partner holds discussions with senior staff about such matters.

If Ofsted uses this data to evaluate schools' work, inspectors can come to a rounded judgement.

Indeed, many would say that this would be a more rounded judgement on the performance of the school than the present emphasis on a very narrow set of statistics.

If, however, the government pursues the notion of trying to find a national measure of pupil wellbeing as another hoop through which all have to jump, ASCL will use all the arguments at our disposal - and we have very wide support among other organisations - to deflect ministers from making what could be a very damaging decision.

Unless this produces a satisfactory solution, much of the work of Children's Trusts will be undermined.

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