Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Party politics pop up

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Although change is a given in education, with an election looming, 2010 may bring some new surprises for school and college leaders. John Dunford runs through the possible scenarios following the election.

Every year is a year of change for schools and colleges but with a general election in prospect there is the certainty of more change, both before the election and afterwards, whatever the result. Things may look very different 12 months from now.

In the blue corner, the Conservatives are gradually unveiling their education policies, so that the picture is becoming clearer of the kind of system we might expect under a Conservative government.

In the red corner, the Children, Schools and Families (CSF) Bill, introduced into the Commons in November, sets out the Labour education manifesto more clearly than any party political broadcast.

If the polls are to be believed, the possibility of a hung Parliament is increasing and so the policies in the yellow corner are of increasing interest too.

Funding is one area where change is certain - and it does not look to be a happy picture. The unprecedented real-terms funding increases of the last ten years will soon have the rosy glow of the past around them, as we face the reality of public expenditure cuts in 2011, whichever party is in power.

All will be looking for 'efficiency savings', which Labour has already indicated as coming through better procurement, lower balances and fewer leadership posts in an increased number of federated schools. The Conservatives have been less specific, but we know that they will look to cut expenditure on quangos, consultants and central administration.

All three parties are looking at longer-term funding reform, with both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats talking about a pupil premium to give additional funding to schools and colleges for disadvantaged students. But it is the short- and medium-term levels of core school and college budgets that give the greatest cause for concern.

ASCL would like to see an activity-led national funding entitlement for students, which would increase fairness of funding across the country.

Post-16 funding will be a particular problem, with the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) being replaced by the Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA) for pre-19 funding and by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) for post-19.

Already the Conservatives are saying that they will reinstate a Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) to fund colleges, but it is not clear whether the single national funding formula, developed by the LSC, will continue. It is very important to ASCL that it does so. With efficiency savings having been embedded in post-16 funding for some time, any further cuts would be particularly damaging for this sector.

Academies' future

Labour and Conservatives are vying for the extent to which they will expand the number of academies, with the Conservatives indicating that any successful school will be able to change to academy status, provided that it agrees to support a school in difficulty. The Tories will also encourage groups of parents and charities to establish new schools.

The Liberal Democrats will change academies into sponsor-managed schools and restore some of the local authority oversight. Where the Liberal Democrats believe that greater freedom would be beneficial, this would be given to all schools. Technical schools for 14-19, promoted by Lord Baker - architect of the National Curriculum - seem to have cross-party support and will be established in major cities, probably attached to colleges.

The ASCL Manifesto sets out our policies in six main areas. On structural reform, as on many other issues, the ASCL mantra is 'national framework, local flexibility'. We want to see schools being given more autonomy over professional matters, with fewer statutory obligations being placed on schools by central government. We want this within a national framework of increasing collaboration and partnership between schools.

Although our manifesto specifically mentioned our wish that academies work as full members of the local family of schools, as many academies already do, this point applies to all types of school.

It is important for the success of the system as a whole that autonomy for schools does not come at the expense of other schools, as this would further polarise a system that already contains huge inequalities. Many maintained schools - academies included - are demonstrating how autonomy and partnership can co-exist and it is important that these lessons are learned.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill sets out pupil and parent guarantees, including the provision of personal tutors for all pupils and stronger home-school agreements. It is not at all certain that there will be sufficient time in this abbreviated parliamentary session for all 17 of the bills in the Queen's Speech to pass into law, so there must be a fair chance that the controversial CSF Bill will not be passed by both houses, or that it will be emasculated in the bargaining that always takes place just before the election campaign begins.

ASCL is strongly opposed to these guarantees being made statutory, with the inevitable consequence of parents seeking redress more frequently through the expanded local government ombudsman process. It is unlikely that either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats would want to see statutory guarantees.

Whichever party is in power at the end of 2010, it is a fair bet that accountability for schools and colleges will increase and, alas, become less intelligent. Alongside the guarantees and additional redress, the CSF Bill gives statutory backing to a school report card, now in the first year of a two-year pilot. ASCL is opposed to the single grade that ministers want to see on the report card.

The Liberal Democrats are proposing an Independent Education Standards Authority and both they and the Conservatives want to reform Ofsted to focus more on teaching and learning. Such a change, however, would take longer than a single year to implement and it is unlikely that the present Ofsted framework will be changed in 2010.

Flexibility on pay

The School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) has become a formidably detailed manual for governors and school leaders to follow. Currently, discussions take place on a weekly basis between the government and unions in the social partnership on matters relating to the STPCD. If there were to be a Conservative government, there would be greater flexibility on pay and this could spell the end of the social partnership.

Under these circumstances governing bodies would have to spend a great deal more time on pay matters. There would still be a national framework of pay and conditions, but the relationship between that and local flexibility would change and schools would have more of the freedoms currently enjoyed by academies to set their own pattern of rewards.

The Liberal Democrats also favour greater flexibility, especially to pay more to teachers in shortage areas or in schools in challenging circumstances. ASCL has long pointed out that such freedom is heavily constrained by funding: if a school does not have additional funding, it cannot pay higher salaries. So flexibility in pay is closely tied to reforms of the funding system.

In recent years, the government has moved away from the rigid detail of the National Curriculum and this trend is likely to continue whichever party is in power. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would give additional freedom to secondary schools on the choice of examination specification, so the number of schools using this freedom as independent schools have done may grow.

The ASCL Manifesto will form the basis for our campaigning over the next year and I hope that individual ASCL members will make use of this in discussions with parliamentary hopefuls in their area.

However, perhaps the most important thing that ASCL and its members must do in this highly charged political climate is to persuade politicians that education policy should be made on the basis of evidence. It is a telling fact that I need to state this point at all.

School and college leadership is a job for optimists, so let us hope that 2010 marks a turning point for evidence-based policy in education. Happy New Year!

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