Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Leaders look for inspiration

Men looking at certificate

The stark choices facing education over the next 12 months, especially in a climate of tighter funding, was the main topic of discussion at ASCL's Annual Conference in March.

Welcoming a record number of delegates to ASCL's Annual Conference on WFriday, 5 March, President John Morgan explained that the conference theme, Inspiring Leaders, was a reflection of ASCL's membership: "Dedicated professionals with a strong moral purpose; leaders whose set of values has fairness and the importance of young people and their education at its heart."

However he had a clear message for the three political party speakers who addressed delegates during the three days of the conference: "A first class education service requires first class funding."

He said: "Education UK is viewed with envy from beyond our shores. But one area where there is still work to do is in raising the aspirations of students, not just to achieve but to remain as learners for life.

"While we can be grateful that for one more year, school funding is secure, we know not all college funding is. And we certainly take no pleasure in seeing that higher education is to take a cut of almost 1 billion next year."

Recalling Ed Balls' speech to annual conference as secretary of state last year, he reminded delegates of the government's two stated priorities for education: raising standards in all schools and colleges, and breaking the link between deprivation and attainment.

ASCL members met the challenge of addressing these priorities during the past year, John said. "Standards have continued to rise in secondary schools and colleges. They continue to rise at a steeper rate in schools in more challenging circumstances. The gap still remains too wide but it was pleasing to see, for example, that the proportion of students from the poorest 20 per cent of households gaining university places has, at last, begun to increase."

Taking the platform immediately after John Morgan, Ed Balls paid tribute to John Dunford and his contribution to the education debate, and to influencing government thinking over the last three years. While they did not always agree, he said, he always received sound advice from our general secretary.

And as Gordon Brown wasn't able to attend the conference, Ed presented a personal letter from the prime minister to John thanking him for his service to education as general secretary over the last 12 years.

During the 20 minute question and answer session that followed, Ed Balls responded to concerns from members about a host of issues including executive headships, more trust for school and college leaders and the role of Ofsted.

Fewer initiatives

Brian Rossiter of Valley Comprehensive School in Worksop, Nottinghamshire referred to the House of Lords Committee report which said that the DCSF should adopt a less heavy-handed approach to maintained schools. Brian asked: "Given that you want to be a reforming government, how will you reduce the number of initiatives piling up on my desk waiting to be implemented?"

Ed Balls agreed that leaders should be left to get on with the job of running schools and colleges, burdened by fewer DCSF initiatives. He pointed to the demise of National Strategies and the 'chains of schools' initiative as evidence that the government is addressing this.

Freedom for all

In his speech to the conference on Sunday, Conservative spokesman Michael Gove attempted to reassure delegates that the Conservatives' push for more academies was intended to enhance autonomy for all.

"For those of you who may have concerns that I am in love with one particular model of school structure, and wish to impose it by relentless diktat, let me make clear: my desire to see academy freedoms extended springs from precisely the opposite impulse, "he said. "It is because I want to see more diversity, more creativity, more professional freedom, that I want to extend autonomy."

He added: "When we hold out the promise of academy style freedoms to more schools it is with the aim of allowing more and more schools to exercise that freedom - and ensuring that those who do exercise that freedom use it to help lever standards up all round."

However, in the question and answer session, ASCL education policy specialist Sue Kirkham raised concerns that autonomy under a Tory government would not extend to the curriculum, following a Times interview in which Michael Gove said the national curriculum needs to be rewritten.

He was quoted as saying: "I'm an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum. Most parents would rather see children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages."

Sue made the point that she received a similar education in the 60s which did not give her the skills she needed for work in the 20th century and it certainly wouldn't prepare her grandchildren for life in the 21st.

Local authority hub

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg also picked up the theme of autonomy and accountability when he address the conference on Saturday.

He said: "A liberal government would not wash its hands of responsibility. But we would restrict ourselves to a small number of strategic areas; defining the minimum curriculum entitlement, setting the levels of minimum pupil funding and pupil premium, and defining, through legislation, the broad freedoms and responsibilities that fall to schools.

"Local government would have an important role too. I have no intention of substituting Whitehall meddling with town hall meddling. But schools are not unconnected from their communities or each other. Local authorities are a hub that joins them together, that links them up with other services, that can co-ordinate on areas like admissions, and that provide clear lines of democratic accountability."

Both Nick Clegg and Michael Gove also paid tribute to John Dunford and the contribution he has made to education. Michael Gove said: "In thanking John I realise that I only raise the stakes for his successor. But I know that in Brian Lightman you have chosen someone with all the qualities of leadership, good judgment and good humour to ensure that the exceptionally high standards John has set are maintained."

Outside of the plenary sessions, delegates took advantage of a full programme of seminar sessions, on topics ranging from student voice to funding to using data.

As one delegate said: "I have to admit to usually ignoring invitations to annual events. But I left totally refocused, re-inspired and re-energised in my role."

Save the date

ASCL Annual Conference 2011 will take place in Manchester on 11 - 12 March.

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