Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Vital cooperation


In his speech to ASCL's Annual Conference in March, John Dunford urged politicians to focus on steady, sustainable change rather than the latest big idea. In this excerpt from his conference speech, he argues that schools and colleges helping each other is the most effective way to improve our education system.

General elections provide the opportunity for a debate on what is really important in education. That is: a relevant, but not over-crowded curriculum, assessment that is fit for purpose, accountability that is intelligent, strong autonomous schools and colleges empowered to work in partnership, resources that are sufficient and equitable, high quality buildings, trust in school and college leaders, policy that is evidence-based, encouragement to the brightest and best of each generation to become teachers and the best of them to become school and college leaders.

We ask too that the election debate on education should be framed in the language of evolution, building on the undoubted successes of recent years and not denigrating all that has gone before. "Lots done, more to do" should be the message. We recognise the tension between this and the desire of politicians to demonstrate their reform credentials with shiny new policies.

All that glisters is not gold: let's resist the deceptive allure of the latest eye-catching wheezes - many of them picked up during the latest bout of policy tourism - and instead aim for sustainable, steady change that will make a lasting impact.

As school and college leaders, we are optimists about what we can do for the life chances of young people. We implore politicians to use that optimism to build a great future for our young people, irrespective of race, gender or background.

Do not over-regulate us, but put in place only enough regulation to ensure that one school's success is not at the expense of another. In the 1980s and 1990s we were encouraged as school leaders to rejoice at the misfortunes of the school down the road because it would increase our intake numbers. Now, when a school nearby is in trouble, ASCL members pick up the phone and say "How can I help?" Government must support that collegiality.

This is symptomatic of a change from the culture of competition that existed during my period of headship to the culture of collaboration and partnership that exists now in most places.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the successful support mechanisms of the London Challenge or in the National Leaders of Education (NLEs) and National Support Schools (NSSs), which have provided lifelines to other schools struggling under difficult circumstances.

Collaborative future

At last there has been a realisation on the part of government that schools improve schools. I hope that that is shared by all parties. The expertise lies not in the DCSF nor in county hall nor in the private sector, but in other school leaders. Whether as NLEs or SIPs, consultant heads or executive heads, there are now hundreds of school leaders - not just heads - playing a part in the wider leadership of the system.

Indeed, the extent of partnership working means that we have reached the stage where all school and college leaders are now co-leaders of education in their area. Appointment procedures, accountability and funding mechanisms may still focus entirely on the single school, but the reality is different and it is time that these systems caught up.

We want to see the new government build on this collaborative culture. We do not want to return to bad old days of dog-eat-dog policies in the false belief that a good dose of the market will improve standards.

This represents a challenge as much to ASCL members as to the government. The siren voice of isolationism may be about to seduce you away from collaboration and partnership and it will be a challenge to maintain the current impetus towards partnership working, firmly rooted in the moral purpose of improving the life chances of all young people in the area. It will be the disadvantaged who suffer if the school system splits into 20,000 autonomous units - a corner shop version of the education service and not one that this association supports.

But there are clouds on the apparently sunny uplands of school and college leadership - far too much central government direction, unfair accountability and the threat of being first in the queue to be a financial saving when schools federate, which counts as my least favourite government announcement of the last year.

Then there is the increased vulnerability of school leaders. In the past year, ASCL supported 163 members who have been sacked, up from 150 in 2008 and 93 in 2007.

In school and college leadership, sometimes you are the pigeon and sometimes the statue. Right now, too many ASCL members are the statues - and the pigeons have too little self-control.

One of the formative influences on my school leadership was the 1977 HMI booklet Ten Good Schools, with its emphasis on the importance of school leadership. So it was particularly good to see the Ofsted publication this year Excelling Against the Odds , telling the stories of 12 outstanding schools in challenging communities. Again it was the quality of leadership - and the length of service of the heads in each school - that stood out as common factors.

I know most of the heads of these schools and they all demonstrate my four leadership Hs: hope, humanity, humility and humour.

Laws of leadership

ASCL is full of leaders of hope; leaders with humanity; leaders with the humility to know how hard the job is to raise the aspirations and achievements of young people. And especially leaders with humour. You know how to motivate staff and, through them, your students.

You almost certainly obey the first law of leadership - smile, even when you don't feel like it. And you are aware that there is no level of enthusiasm that cannot be eliminated with sufficient discouragement from the head. This is an association of radiators, with not a drain in sight.

Leadership is not just about heads and principals. There is now genuinely distributed leadership, empowering teachers to lead. Gone are the days of autocratic heads who took every decision themselves. Many at that time observed these two rules of headship.

  • Rule 1. The head is always right.

  • Rule 2. If the head is wrong, rule 1 applies.

You know that innovation does not mean thinking up new things every week - government ministers, should take note. The most successful innovative school and college leaders take ideas from elsewhere and adapt them to their own institution, then implement them consistently and sustainably. That's innovation.

As John F Kennedy said: "Success is relative. The more success you have, the more relatives you find you have."

It is a very different world of school and college leadership now from the time when I first joined the leadership team of a comprehensive school 36 years ago, when the post of 'senior teacher' was invented.

Leadership really is a journey, learning all the time, and I have worked with some wonderful people, leaders and led, who have taught me. I was fortunate to lead a great team of staff at Durham Johnston Comprehensive School and I have been especially privileged to have led the wonderful ASCL team.

The values of this association have run through my bloodstream for the last 12 years just as the values of Durham Johnston did for the previous 16. These are the things that this association stands for: the values of respect for others, professionalism, equity, trust, fairness, a sense of justice, commitment, opportunity, interdependence, and mutual support. All our policies, all our activities, all our member support are based on these values.

I know that you, as ASCL members, will hold firm to your principles and values in these coming months, a time of great uncertainty. Our students, staff, parents and governors have never needed great school and college leaders more. They believe in you and, more importantly, they need you.


© 2021 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT