Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A vintage year or policy hangover?


2008 was another bumper year for new education initiatives. John Dunford reviews the good, the bad and the ugly over the past year.

The year 2008 went out with a bang indeed, a whole volley of bangs - in education reform. The second week of December saw the publication of a DCSF paper on the 21st century school, proposals for a balanced scorecard for school accountability, a summary of the year's developments in The Children's Plan: One Year On, and a comprehensive strategy for the children's workforce.

Much the most important of these documents for secondary schools were the proposals for a 'report card' or 'balanced scorecard' of school performance. FE colleges already have been introduced to a balanced scorecard in the form of the Framework for Excellence (FfE), but how this sits with the school version is not at all clear.

In two debates last term, ASCL Council put forward the principles listed in the table (see right) on which the balanced scorecard should be based (1).

Replace league tables

ASCL support for a scorecard will depend on the final version adhering to these principles. ASCL has always recognised the limitations - and the damage - of league tables and it is possible that a well-designed, balanced scorecard could provide more intelligent accountability than league tables of examination performance. We certainly cannot have both.

With the current outline proposals, it is just about possible to see how the scorecard would fit into the overall scheme of school accountability. Under the New Relationship with Schools, there is intended to be an inter-relationship between school self-evaluation, Ofsted inspections and the single conversation with the school improvement partner. A plan for a balanced scorecard should demonstrate clearly how it fits into this system and the DCSF paper starts to address this issue.

This has been a vintage year for new education policies. If the European Union dealt with over-production in policy-making in the same way as it deals with over-production of wine, we would now be pouring much of the 2008 policy vintage into the educational equivalent of a wine lake.

We would, of course, carefully select the policies to go into the lake; there are some that we would want to keep. The main problem is the sheer volume of new policies - far too many for school and college leaders to keep up with and no realistic expectation of implementing them all.

Consulting pupils

The year saw the passage through Parliament of the Education Act 2008, raising the participation age to 17 in 2012 and then 18 the following year. This was supported by ASCL, but we were horrified that, during the third reading in the House of Lords, a new duty was added to school governing bodies to consult pupils. ASCL has done as much as any organisation to promote student voice, but we do not see the need for yet another statutory duty, for which regulations and guidance will follow as surely as night follows day.

So pupil voice is added to the growing list of statutory duties placed on schools, alongside the duty to promote wellbeing (as if schools would want to do the opposite, whatever that may be!) and the duty to promote community cohesion, both in place from September 2008, and the duty to co-operate with other local agencies, which will be included in the 2009 Education Bill.

Compulsory cooking at Key Stage 3 (from 2011) and compulsory PSHE (implementation date unknown) will both be added to the statutory part of the curriculum. Many ASCL members would have been among those who regarded as a retrograde step the effective abolition of cooking in schools in the 1980s. It is hardly our fault that few schools have been teaching serious cooking since then.

2008 also saw the start of the National Challenge for schools with less than 30 per cent (including English and maths) high grade GCSE passes and an initiative to raise achievement in 'coasting' schools. Even though ministers must know that some local authorities are woefully inadequate in their work with secondary schools, it was the local authorities that were given new powers to push these policies, aided by the national strategies and an army of advisers.

College leaders should by no means feel left out. With the Machinery of Government changes in motion, ASCL has grave concerns about LAs' capacity, even in sub-regional groups, to plan for change and to provide adequate support. While the government has promised that the new Young People's Learning Agency and Skills Funding Agency will be 'slimline' versions, opportunities for increased complexity and bureaucracy may prove irresistible.

Children's services

This was the year of the tragic case of Baby P and the realisation that all the local government reform following Victoria Climbič's death could not prevent a similar disaster. ASCL said then, and still believes, that it was wrong for the government to impose children's services departments on local authorities, with the inevitable consequence that education has slipped down their list of priorities.

Only when local authorities properly join up local services in a way that supports schools and other front line services will these reforms be seen as beneficial. We are still a long way from that in many parts of the country.

The list of 2008 reforms also includes the start of diploma courses, new regulations for SENCOs, the splitting of Ofqual from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, a new admissions code (or two), a push on extended schools which, according to the DCSF press release 'puts parents in the driving seat', more school cadet forces, more academies, more Building Schools for the Future plans, and a National Council on Educational Excellence that whispered rather than roared, but proposed that both business links and higher education admissions should be the responsibility of members of the senior leadership team.

December also saw a press report that "senior social workers will be expected to spend time at management level in schools; heads will have to have experience in social work." We must hope that this truly barmy suggestion was no more than media speculation.

By some distance the winning announcement during 2008 was the abolition of Key Stage 3 tests and league tables, the abandonment of the pilot on single level tests and the cancelling of all the futile targets around Key Stage 3 results.

I have suggested to the secretary state that, since abolishing things gets him much better media coverage, he should do more of it. But ASCL members should not hold their breath for this in 2009, a pre-election year.

Among the 300 or so DCSF press releases in 2008, the announcement on 6 March is my favourite, containing a nice touch of irony as "Ed Balls called on Britain's banks and other financial institutions to give a head start to those children who struggle with maths." Perhaps 2009 will see him calling on maths teachers to help the banks get their sums right. Happy new year!

(1) The full ASCL paper on the balanced scorecard can be found on the ASCL website at www.ascl.org.uk/noticeboard

ASCL's scorecard principles

  • The scorecard should be seen as part of the accountability structure of schools and should be constructed in a way that contributes to intelligent accountability. In particular, the scorecard must not create an additional layer of accountability in a system under which schools are already accountable in many different ways.

  • The scorecard should reflect the breadth of each school's activity and not concentrate only on academic performance.

  • It should be equally possible for a good school serving a disadvantaged community and a good school serving a less disadvantaged area to obtain a high score.

  • The scorecard should replace league tables of examination results and should not be in addition to them.

  • The score for achievement should not be the raw results, but should be contextualised. It should be based on the achievement of all students and not be a threshold measure.

  • There should be no single grade, A to F, summarising the performance of the school. The grades from each aspect of the scorecard should be reported separately.

  • The balanced scorecard should be applied to the work of the school with students up to 16. An adapted version of the Framework for Excellence, currently being used in colleges, should be the basis on which the sixth form outcomes are reported.

  • The grades should be baselined in the initial year of operation and thereafter should not be subject to a normal distribution or any other statistical basis. As in New York, an improving school system should be reflected in a higher proportion of top grades and a lower proportion of bottom grades.

  • The design of the scorecard should be created in consultation with the profession and others and not imposed by the government. This was a critical part of the acceptance of the scorecard by teachers and principals in New York.

  • During the planning and consultation period, different designs for the scorecard should be modelled on existing schools in order to see the results in a range of real situations.

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