Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Using their initiatives?

Man juggling waste paper

In his speech to ASCL's annual conference, John Dunford proposed a practical remedy for the DCSF affliction known as 'hyperactive regulatory disorder'.

Last year I suggested that it was time for a re-think in the relationship between government and school and college leaders, that there was a new alignment to be forged, with strong autonomous schools and colleges, empowered to collaborate, held to account intelligently and involving more strongly their main stakeholders, the students and their parents.

In other words, we go on raising standards across the system, involving young people and their parents more, and working together with other schools, and the government creates a framework in which autonomy, collaboration and accountability are held in a new, more productive balance. Bottom-up development with top-down empowerment is what we firmly believe is needed for a successful system.

Steve Marshall, formerly an inspiring head of education in Wales, wrote in 2008 in the Ontario principals' magazine: "You often find in education systems that, when policy is determined, implementation is not always considered to the degree it could be and principals will say 'If you had only asked us ... It's not that the idea is wrong, it's just the way you're going about it.'"

And the government here does listen to ASCL. I have no complaint about the extent to which we are consulted on each reform. Far from it. But a big part of the problem is the sheer volume of legislation and regulation. Many of them have considerable merit. But we cannot implement them all at once.

The DCSF carried out 79 policy consultations in 2008 and in 2009 we are set for even more.

This provides incontrovertible evidence that the power of the government over education, like the power of George III, "has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished".

The moral purpose that drives us is our belief in the power of learning to transform the lives of young people. Although ministers and officials also want to do good, I sometimes think that the purpose that drives the government is its belief in the power of legislation. In fact, 'drives' may not be quite the right word, as the juggernaut of policies, laws and regulations hurtles at ever increasing speed towards us, seemingly out of control.

Head for a month

Now, as you know, the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. But what is the Question? In the DCSF the answer is legislation and never mind the question.

Governments - and this is not the first one with this problem - suffer from HRD, Hyperactive Regulatory Disorder, a condition for which there is no known cure, but for which I suggest a practical remedy.

Aviva, the insurance company, that has recently changed its name rather more expensively than ASCL, gets its executives to crash a car and then go through the process of making a claim. Now I would suggest that nobody should be allowed to become an education minister without first being a teacher for a month, including break duty on a wet Friday, and being a head for a month, including reading and implementing all DCSF documents and meeting all administrative deadlines while not being tied to one's desk during the school day.

The most common side effect of HRD is another law - the Law of Unintended Consequences. Just one example will have to suffice.

Some heads received a letter last year from the deputy director of the Progression and Performance Division of the DCSF (You just couldn't make it up!). The letter was entitled: Collection of reasons for Key Stage 3 test absence from schools with 5 per cent and above absence in any of the national test subjects over two consecutive years.

The letter was dated 1 April (I kid you not). So, just 96 days before the Key Stage 3 tests were abolished, a new statutory duty in The Education (School Performance Information) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008 compelled some schools to provide the government with a list of reasons for each pupil's absence from each KS3 test.

The letter was accompanied by a Q and A sheet, including such gems as "Isn't the collection of reasons for KS3 test absence unnecessary, additional bureaucracy?" The answer, of course, starts with "No".

Fortunately, in the end, ETS incompetence ensured that nobody cared whether the pupils had been there or not.

Ed Balls couldn't have failed to notice what good press he received on 15 October by abolishing the tests. I have subsequently pointed out to him several times that, since he gets many more plaudits for abolishing things than for introducing them, could he please introduce less and abolish more.

Delivery chain

Instead we have a deficit model of policy making, with school and college leaders not trusted and the government always assuming that schools are doing things badly. The rationale for all of this was given by Jim Knight to the House of Lords Merits Committee, which was studying the reasons for the large number of statutory instruments (SI) applied to schools and colleges.

Why all the SIs, the committee asked. The minister said that, because schools are improving, the DCSF is slowly reducing the number of them - ASCL members may disagree.

"It is," he said, "a relatively open system, a relatively delegated system and it therefore needs some regulation if we are going to get anything done."

Which seems to imply that schools will only act if they are told what to do by the government.

"By and large," he continued, "it is a very compliant system. We have things through our national strategies, through the local authorities, through the non-departmental public bodies: a delivery chain with which we work closely and that feeds information and intelligence back to us about how things are working."

So there you have it. Many millions spent on the educational equivalents of the paratroopers and MI6, forcing schools into 'compliance' and feeding back 'intelligence' about the extent to which we are doing his master's wishes, jumping through his master's hoops.

And all this, imposed on a school system that has become increasingly varied in recent years in the name of 'diversity'. Does the government not see the irony? The truth is that diversity is a political pretence, a paper-thin cover for a system that has become over-centralised and over-bureaucratic.

In this Tesco management model of England Schools plc, heads are the branch managers, teachers the shelf fillers and bursars the account technicians - part of a delivery chain that is about as far from my vision of school leadership as it is possible to get - all summed up in that dreadful word 'compliance'.

Compliance, I used to read in management books, is the lowest form of commitment, to be encouraged in those who have no job flexibility, no initiative and limited intelligence. Is this what ministers really want of their school leaders? I sincerely hope not. Yet that's how it sometimes feels.

Fortunately, this isn't what actually happens, except in a Whitehall view of our world, seen from one end of what they call the 'delivery chain'.

Initiatives ignored

Instead, in the real world, ASCL's secondary school and college leaders retain the self-confidence to hang on to a high degree of flexibility and to have at their sides a waste paper basket labelled 'initiatives ignored'. This is the principal as gatekeeper, in the words of Michael Fullan. Leaders can, and do, have original thoughts and put them into action.

That's why we have such a rich tapestry of different activities taking place in our schools and colleges. That's why, when you visit a town with several schools, people will tell you about the different characteristics of each. It's got nothing to do with the government, a bit to do with specialist status, and everything to do with the initiative, commitment and drive of ASCL members.

It is a situation in which the government should trust school leaders more, hold them to account intelligently, have clearer priorities and fewer, better planned initiatives that bring implementation into the heart of policy making.

ASCL members have successfully led improved results at 16 and 18, increased participation post-16, the introduction of the diploma, new courses at A level and GCSE, a new approach at Key Stage 3, greater consultation with parents and students, and much more. We have led the way on community cohesion and wellbeing and shared with the social partnership the leadership of a successful programme of workforce reform.

ASCL members want a higher performing system as much, if not more than, anyone and are prepared to take responsibility and collective action to bring this about. With a high-trust model of school improvement, our impact will be deep and sustainable.


Further reading...

To read John Dunford's full address to the ASCL annual conference, visit www.ascl.org.uk/annualconference

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