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The new secretary of state should concentrate on improving and supporting what is working well rather than introducing yet more new initiatives, says John Dunford.

I have written a lot of letters to secretaries of state over the years, mostly about some aspect of policy that is causing problems for ASCL members and asking for that policy to be changed.

I have also written a large number of letters welcoming politicians to their new job as an education minister, expressing the hope that s/he will work closely with ASCL and requesting an early meeting to discuss issues that are high on the association's agenda.

Some ASCL members will have followed the election blog that I felt moved to write, prompted by the inadequacy of John Humphrys' interview of Michael Gove on the Today programme on 26 April. Almost every day of the campaign thereafter an education issue arose on which I commented in my blog, maintaining (I hope) ASCL's valued political neutrality.

Writing the blog on election day, I decided to publish an open letter (right) to the new secretary of state, realising that it was likely that a hung parliament might result in it being several days before the recipient of the letter was appointed. This was the same letter that I delivered to Michael Gove at what was then the DCSF on his first day as secretary of state for education.

While negotiations were continuing amongst the parties, I also reflected in my blog that there may be some advantages in not having a single party with a clear-cut majority.

Smorgasbord of measures

So what can education expect from a coalition government? There might be less legislation. Having suffered from legislation overload in schools and colleges, ASCL members will strongly support a move away from an education bill every year. Twenty education acts in 20 years is just too many for any institution to implement thoroughly and effectively.

Even without adopting Swedish education practices, recent bills have tended to be a smorgasbord of measures introduced into Parliament as an incoherent combination of dozens, even hundreds, of clauses. There is never enough Parliamentary time to discuss properly all these different measures. If there were fewer bills, they would each get more parliamentary time and thus produce better legislation.

As we have seen over the last 25 years, single governing parties do not always feel the need to consult properly on their legislative programme and so their half-formed ideas - often stemming from perceived political advantage rather than educational improvement - pass into law before they have been properly trialled. These laws are rarely based on strong evidence of what works in practice.

In a coalition government, bills will only become law if they have the support of more than a single party. In common with most other European countries, ministers would have to hold discussions with other parties before introducing legislation into Parliament.

This would mean ditching some elements of the government party election manifesto and greatly reducing the extent of change.

With a Eurozone financial crisis, stock markets at risk and a huge hole to repair in the UK public finances, the new government will have more than enough on its plate without indulging in legislative hyper-activity.

On education policy, the highest priority of the new secretary of state is surely to discuss with the Treasury how frontline educational services can best be funded in the current financial climate, given the importance to the national economy of having a highly educated and well trained workforce for the 21st century. ASCL's line in the sand is the 0.7 per cent real-terms increase announced by Ed Balls, which we expect to be honoured by the new government.

The advantage of continuity

Apart from getting a good deal on education funding, I am encouraging the secretary of state to forget the idea of a new education bill and instead seek cross-party consensus on supporting schools and colleges to do better those things that don't need any new laws or regulations.

That means concentrating on raising educational standards, supporting the education of the disadvantaged, working out how best to engage parents in the education of their children, encouraging inter-school partnership and collaboration, supporting schools on behaviour, improving assessment and testing, improving vocational qualifications and embedding the diploma, reforming Ofsted, attracting the brightest and the best into teaching and reforming accountability to remove perverse incentives.

This approach will also have the advantage of continuity, instead of the continual changes of direction that we have experienced over the last 25 years.

Much of the inter-party policy debate during election campaigns has been froth, emphasising for party advantage the differences between them. Two years after the 2010 election (and perhaps another election later in 2010 or 2011) I suspect that we shall look back and find that the continuities of education policy are greater than the discontinuities, especially if the new government concentrates on the essential business of raising standards to which, as school and college leaders, we have devoted our professional careers.


Dear Michael,

Congratulations on your appointment as secretary of state for education. You have just started the best job in government with the future of the country literally in your hands and a workforce with the strongest possible commitment to maximising the life chances of every young person.

Writing on behalf of the leaders of that workforce, I ask you to work with us. We would particularly ask you to remember the following ten things:

  1. Pass fewer education laws. Do not over-regulate schools and colleges. Put in place just enough regulation to ensure that one school's success is not at the expense of another.

  2. Maintain the direction of change from the culture of competition that existed in the 1980s and 1990s to the culture of collaboration and partnership between institutions that has developed strength in recent years. Create more incentives for schools to work in partnership.

  3. Continue to increase in real terms the proportion of the national budget spent on schools and colleges. The next generation of young people should not have their education jeopardised as a result of an economic crisis not of their making.

  4. Over time, improve the distribution of that funding so that young people are not disadvantaged by their postcode.

  5. Continue to build schools for the future and prioritise the renewal of the schools with the worst buildings.

  6. Strengthen post-14 qualifications by introducing a general diploma with a broad core of knowledge and skills.

  7. Strengthen assessment by building a cohort of chartered assessors - senior professionals externally accredited to carry out in-course assessment to external standards - and use these assessments as a proportion of final grades in all external qualifications.

  8. Engage parents more strongly in the education of their children - and recognise that they don't want to run schools.

  9. Introduce intelligent accountability for schools and colleges. Make it robust, fair and proportionate. Make qualit y assurance and self-evaluation the centrepiece of the accountability system.

  10. Only through our work at school and college level can your policies become successful, so make sure that all these policies are rooted in the reality of implementation.

With every good wish for your tenure as secretary of state. May it be longer, more effective and less interventionist than the average of your predecessors.

Yours sincerely,

John Dunford

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