Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Policies spin out of control...

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Too much legislation is contradictory and shaped by politics rather than sound education practice, says John Dunford. It's time the government acknowledged the flaws in its thinking and recognised that school and college leaders are driven by moral purpose rather than meeting targets.

The 2008 GCSE results were the best ever in England and Wales, yet the press coverage was Talmost wholly negative, most media focusing on the fact that fewer than half of 16 year-olds obtained five high grade GCSE passes, including English and mathematics.

The remarkable achievement of schools in improving that statistic and the fact that the government had raised the bar three years ago by including English and mathematics in this headline figure were entirely overlooked, even by the serious newspapers.

League tables provided the opportunity for some celebratory articles about the 'most improved' schools with comments from heads on how the improvement had come about. But there were more column inches on the schools with low GCSE pass rates, driven by remarks by the secretary of state that schools should not make poverty "an excuse for failure".

The definition of news, a journalist told me recently, is the one provided by Lord Beaverbrook many years ago - anything that someone, somewhere does not want printed. So, ASCL members should not hold their breath waiting for newspaper stories headed 'Schools meet government target' or 'Exam results rise in colleges'.

However, it is surely in the interests of a government that has been in office for nearly 12 years to accentuate the positive and talk up their achievements as well as ours. We are happy to share the credit, as long as we get some too.

The National Challenge could have been launched as a government initiative to put £400 million into the most challenging schools in the country. Excellence in Cities conveyed that message successfully and never attracted the kind of negative headlines given to National Challenge schools, such as 'Four failing local schools may close'. As a result, the government turned a £400 million investment into a public relations disaster.

Within education, the result was more serious. Not only were the leaders and staff of National Challenge schools wounded by the allegations of failure (especially when their CVA was over 1,000, their results were on an upward trend and/or they had recently had a successful Ofsted inspection), but other secondary school leaders reacted strongly to the unfairness of the judgement, to the arbitrary nature of the 30 per cent threshold irrespective of intake, and to the unwarranted negative publicity. If these colleagues can be treated so unfairly, they reasoned, then there, but for the grace of God, go I.

'Coasting' schools

The contradiction of huge investment generating negative headlines was matched by further frustration in the announcement of an initiative on 'coasting' schools. Many ASCL members taking up a leadership post in a new school have described the situation as 'coasting', so we can have no complaint that the government wants to raise achievement in these schools.

But the way in which the government paper set out the criteria for defining a school as coasting could have included at least 50 per cent of secondary schools - a contradiction in every sense. The letter I wrote to the secretary of state about this is on the ASCL website and, hopefully, the situation has been rectified as a result.

A contradiction that is a particular irritant to some ASCL members concerns training schools. Only schools that are judged to be high performing specialist schools (HPSS) are allowed to be training schools. The criteria for HPSS - which change every year - are all about examination performance and Ofsted grades and include nothing about how good a school is at training. So the best training school in the country can lose its status for factors that have nothing to do with the quality of its training.

The college sector has seen its share of unfair practice as well. Inspection 'notices to improve' were issued entirely on the basis of success rates, often of very small cohorts. Despite assurances that notices to improve would be first considered by LSC regional officers and be kept confidential, in the first year they were applied in a mechanistic way and leaked via MPs, in some cases creating very negative and misleading reports in local papers.

The government is promoting collaboration and partnership between schools and colleges. Indeed, this is at the centre of its vision of 21st century schools. Yet it remains a contradiction that so many government policies - especially those for funding and accountability - are a throwback to the era when 'the market' ruled and schools were encouraged to compete.

As Robert Hill pointed out in Achieving More Together, the ASCL book detailing his research into partnerships, collaboration and competition can co-exist but it is very difficult with the current contradictions.

Soul of the job

There are plenty of other contradictions in education policy.

The more education reform that is introduced, the more contradictions appear. This need not be the case if there were greater consistency in the assumptions underlying policy. The more education legislation and regulation there is, the further away it seems to get from the soul of what we are trying to do in schools and colleges. Of course a legislative framework is needed; of course governments want us to make an impact; but they should never forget the moral purpose of what brought us into education and especially into leadership positions - it's the moral purpose in the job, not the body of legislation, that drives us.

So much reform, so many contradictions. Yet the task here is easier than that faced in the US by Barack Obama as he sets out with the hopes of so many people behind him - as Tony Blair did in 1997 - to create a more just society in which people of all races and backgrounds can improve their life chances through education.

In spite of George Bush's No Child Left Behind education policy, Obama's biggest problem is that there are 50 education jurisdictions, not one. Power in education lies largely with state governors and education boards and below them district superintendents, not with the President of the United States.

No Child Left Behind brought with it a new layer of federal accountability to add to the existing school accountabilities at state and district level. Meeting US school principals and discussing with them the differences and similarities between the US and British education systems, I find little to envy and much to avoid.

We may bemoan the contradictions of the UK education systems - and the plural is becoming increasingly important here, as devolution takes hold - but we should not forget the way in which increased funding from central government very quickly reaches school and college budgets (as do decreases, of course), nor the extent to which we can influence those who pull the levers of education power. ASCL's equivalent in the US, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has far less influence than we do - not because it is less efficient, but because of the diffusion of the system.

Self-inflicted contradictions

It will take more than the four years of a single administration for Obama, and his popular choice for education secretary, Arne Duncan, to change the deeply ingrained US education system, even though Duncan has so much cross-party support that his Senate confirmation hearings were described as "a love-fest, an atmosphere of milk and honey, with Republicans heaping so much praise on the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools they sounded like Democrats." It was as if Sir Tim Brighouse had become secretary of state in England.

Senators spoke with admiration of Duncan's impressive achievements in bringing measurable improvements to Chicago's long-suffering public schools. Teachers may not feel the same way about Duncan, however, as his popularity with Republicans, as much as Democrats, is based on stronger accountability for teachers and administrators, greater public school choice and charter schools, as well as performance-based pay for teachers.

Life is full of contradictions, so it is perhaps not surprising that education policy has its share. Politics, like school and college leadership, is often about making the least bad choice between two undesirable courses of action. Yet the contradictions in education policy seem so often not to be driven by the normal tensions between alternatives but to be self-inflicted.

As we come nearer to the next general election, we must hope that there is more emphasis on the undoubted achievements of schools and colleges in the last 12 years, so that the education policy debate has its basis in the moral purpose of improving the life chances of young people, and so that it becomes more strongly rooted in fact and less in political theory and rhetoric.

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