Paper guarantees debate
As the precursor to an autumn education bill, the white paper Your Child, Your School, Our Future was the subject of much debate at the Council meeting on 17-18 September, especially the pupil and parent guarantee.
High cost pupils
In discussing ASCL's response to the reports from the School Funding Implementation Group's (SFIG), the committee looked at the question of funding for high cost special needs pupils.
While ASCL reinforced its commitment to activity led funding, it was felt that a lump sum should be kept at regional or central level to support high cost pupils, as the funds needed for a single student could easily skew the budget of a small authority.
However, the point was made that having a central fund tends to encourage schools and colleges to send high needs students into residential care, whereas a local solution can be better for the student and more cost effective.
Key Stage 2 tests
The committee debated what ASCL's response should be to Michael Gove's announcement that the Conservatives are considering the idea of Key Stage 2 tests being held at the start of year 7 and marked by teachers in secondary schools. It was strongly felt that there needs to be some form of external assessment at Key Stage 2 in order to hold primary schools to account and act as a baseline for judging secondary school progress.
However, there were several concerns with the Conservative proposal. First, it could encourage some parents to have pupils tutored over the summer; other pupils would be disadvantaged by the summer holiday.
In addition the delay in accessing results would mean teachers starting the year without an understanding of students' strengths and weaknesses and more importantly where intervention was needed. Finally, secondary school teachers do not have the capacity to mark exams at the beginning of the year.
ASCL's response will be shared with Conservative MPs.
Accountability and Ofsted
Issues of school accountability dominated much of the discussion in this committee, particularly around Ofsted and the use of data. The committee had serious reservations about the parents' questionnaire as part of the new inspection framework.
The feeling was that it would only record the views of a small number of parents and that this could be misleading.
The committee put forward a principle which, it was suggested, should be used in all discussions with civil servants and Ofsted about accountability: "Data is valuable only for the valid inferences you can draw from it."
The committee also had concerns that ASCL members were not fully aware of the seriousness of safeguarding as a limiting judgement in inspection. There were fears that schools do not realise they could be judged inadequate if they fail to meet safeguarding requirements, even if all other elements are good or outstanding. This message will be reinforced to members.
Your Child, Your School, Our Future
Public and Parliamentary Committee and Professional Committee
The government's white paper Your Child, Your School, Our Future, sets out nearly 50 proposals and policy changes, and two of the committees discussed a number of them.
On partnerships, federations and chains of schools, Public and Parliamentary Committee agreed that while collaboration was to be encouraged it does not work if imposed. Schools and colleges must be allowed to choose their appropriate partners - partnering with schools or colleges that are too close geographically or too different in intake can be problematic. Neither should there be additional bureaucracy arising from partnerships.
Professional Committee particularly was concerned at the rationale behind promoting chains of schools. It was stressed that autonomy does not equal a 'free for all' and Public and Parliamentary Committee will discuss a position paper on autonomy and collaboration at the next meeting.
Professional Committee stressed that the focus on attainment, rather than progress, is undermining some initiatives which would otherwise be helpful, including the school report card.
The white paper also signals a trend to give greater power for local authorities to intervene in schools, and for the secretary of state to compel LAs to intervene.
Both committees agreed that LAs do have a role in ensuring the quality of standards and coordinating some functions, such as transport and admissions, but that schools should retain all the autonomy they currently have.
The committee heard that Ofqual is seeking feedback on a proposal that every new qualification be subject to at least a two-year pilot plus time for evaluation before it can be approved. The committee thorough endorsed the proposal, with the caveat that learners studying pilot qualifications should not be disadvantaged and therefore should be awarded an equivalent of an existing qualification (for example five GCSEs).
Pupil and parent guarantee
Your Child, Your School, Our Future, sets out proposals for a pupil and a parent guarantee. Council members acknowledged that the guarantees encompass what all schools aspire to and it is hard to disagree with the sentiments, but for the government to say it could guarantee this was impossible as it is schools that will have to deliver.
It was observed that the guarantees strengthen the case for activity led funding and that perhaps ASCL's response should be: "We want to meet the guarantee; now let's determine what it will cost."
The guarantee is predicated on the notion that all parents want the best for their children and all children want to learn, which are often not the case. What is needed is a document that spells out the responsibilities of central government, of schools and colleges and of parents and pupils. Several council members questioned whether the guarantees would ever see the light of day, pending the results of the next election.
ASCL officers will reinforce these points to Ed Balls and senior civil servants over the coming months.
HE entry process
Reflecting on the summer media speculation that hundreds of 18 year-olds would be without university places, Council representatives agreed that as a whole the process went smoothly this year, even though there were an additional 45,000 learners seeking places. Clearing was completed in record time and 400 students who received better than expected grades used the new procedures to 'trade up' their place.
The widest source of problems came from mistakes from the exam boards, where students lost out on places even when papers were upgraded.
Another concern was universities becoming much stricter on grade offers and students who missed by a grade being rejected, whereas some years ago universities were more flexible. However, one council member said the school used this to its advantage in emphasising the importance of grades to students.
Another concern was that very bright students from working class backgrounds still appeared less likely to get into Oxbridge than middle class students who were less able.
It was felt that the interview process disadvantaged working class students and that schools and colleges that had the resources to be able to dedicate staff to coaching pupils through the interview process had the most success.
John Morgan is the schools' representative on UCAS and he will take these points to the next meeting.
School report card
Council discussed four specific indicators on the report card: SEN, partnership working, pupil and parent perceptions and well-being.
Council members were sceptical of any measures being able to accurately capture a school's performance in these areas. Especially with well-being and SEN it was felt that schools' efforts, rather than pupil outcomes, should be measured. One option for well-being would be to have the school improvement partner (SIP) provide a grade but caution was expressed about loading too much onto SIPs.
Pupil and parent perceptions it was felt should be gathered by the school, as these vary widely depending on the time of year, year group and other factors.
While Council agreed in principle that partnerships should be recognised, there was no clear consensus on how to measure this in the report card. All felt it would be extremely difficult to capture accurately.
Approximately 120 schools are piloting the report card this year and ASCL will be seeking feedback on how well the process is working.
The next Council meeting is 3-4 December in Coventry.
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