Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Cleared for take off?

Origami bird

With so much still unknown about how the coalition government's plans for education will unfold, there was plenty of opportunity at the June Council meeting to debate and determine ASCL's policy response to academies, the pupil premium and curriculum changes.

Coalition education policies

Plenary debate

With the recent change in government, the whole of the plenary debate was given over to determining Council's response to the coalition's plans regarding education policy, including the manifesto, Academies Bill and statements in the Queen's speech. Each committee discussed relevant aspects, fed back to Council as a whole and then led into a full plenary discussion. The following are the main areas:

Curriculum: We want to keep a slimmed down curriculum that combines core knowledge and broader skills, while leaving plenty of room for creativity and innovation. The government should focus on outcomes rather than processes - it shouldn't dictate to schools and colleges how to teach. For example, the government should not be involved in policy about setting.

Inspection: The government says that Ofsted should focus on "areas of failure" - this needs to be defined and determined by reliable data. Currently Ofsted concentrates too much on symptoms rather than causes. Inspection should be able to acknowledge the underlying factors outside schools' and colleges' control. The focus must be on progress rather than attainment.

Pay and conditions: ASCL's principle of a national framework with local flexibility should apply, especially as more schools move to academy status. More flexibility over areas such as rarely cover and teaching and learning responsibility (TLR) payments would help, but a broad national pay and conditions framework should give some level of protection. Some staff, including ASCL members, have suffered in the move to academies.

Underperforming staff : There is huge variation in local authority processes but overall schools and colleges should be able to remove underperforming staff more quickly. A national framework which streamlines the process and removes barriers is needed. However we must remember that changes will apply to ASCL members as well as teaching staff. ASCL must get across the message that there are not thousands of 'incompetent' teachers. The focus should be on removing barriers, not starting a crusade against underperformance.

Funding: We don't want to end up with a funding system of 'haves' and 'have nots'. The government must not rush into funding changes without thinking through implications for all, or the outcome could be significant pain without sufficient gain. The impact of the pupil premium will need to be assessed over time.

Academies: We agree with giving more freedom - which should be for all schools - but the system must be fair so there are not winners and losers. Academy status should come with an imperative to collaborate. There must be safeguards built in so that the creation of more academies does not polarise the system. It was agreed that ASCL's position on many of these issues can be summed up under the principle of 'freedom, fairness and responsibility', as articulated by the prime minister. ASCL officers will raise these points along with others when meeting the Secretary of State and other ministers and civil servants.

Cost of exams

Education and Funding Committees

Both committees discussed ways of reducing spiralling exam costs without compromising the breadth and depth of assessment, with a view to putting a proposal to new education ministers. While ASCL has regularly stated that the cost and number of exams should be reduced, there is a danger that the government's response will be to revert to an outdated qualification system which favours the most able, and to do away with qualifications which benefit large numbers of students, particularly in comprehensive schools.

It was agreed that performance tables have been the biggest cause of rising exam costs, as students take an increasing number of subjects and resits. Changing performance tables to remove incentives to over-enter students for exams would benefit students and bring financial gains.

There were concerns about the number of modular exams, both in terms of cost and disruption to the institution, but consensus was that modular exams benefited many students and they shouldn't be lost. The Conservatives have expressed reservations about modular exams. Ideally we need a choice between modular and linear exams, with both available.

It was acknowledged that the awarding bodies do not receive an excessive profit from general qualifications as much of their income goes towards development costs for diplomas, functional skills, and revised A level and GCSE qualifications. Reducing exam fees would have an impact on the quality of marking, efficiency and customer service.

These points will be worked into a policy paper by ASCL Education Specialist Sue Kirkham and officers to discuss with ministers.

Pupil premium

Funding Committee

Following a presentation on the government's proposed pupil premium, the committee agreed several principles that it felt should be adhered to as the premium is introduced. While the government is still in discussion about the details of implementation, there is an opportunity to influence the outcome.

The committee supported the idea of additional funding to follow students from deprived backgrounds, as well as a move to a national funding formula. However there was concern about what would happen if the changes were introduced too quickly. For the first few years, transition funding will be necessary for schools that will ultimately see a decrease in funding.

In the long-term, there must be some mechanism to ensure stability so that schools do not have significant fluctuations in funding from year to year. In addition the baseline funding - for pupils not attracting a premium - must be high enough so that those schools with no students on a premium can function adequately. It should be made explicit that the premium is spent at school level rather than at pupil level so that, for instance, parents do not demand to know how the additional money which follows their child has been used.

Finally, the indicators used to indentify students must be as accurate as possible. The government is looking at several possible indicators for deprivation, including free school meals; geographic segmentation through MOSAIC, ACORN or ADAKI; or, for secondary schools, Key Stage 2 attainment.

The committee expressed concern about the turbulence which would occur if the premium were introduced too quickly. In addition it is likely that schools will need to be able to demonstrate the impact of the additional funding; therefore the premium must be significant enough to make a difference. Finally, the committee stressed that even with the pupil premium, schools cannot be held accountable for reducing the gap between rich and poor, as the statement in the government's manifesto implied.

ASCL will make these points to ministers and civil servants in future meetings about the premium.

Intelligent Accountability

Professional Committee

A revised policy paper on improving intelligent accountability, which contains 24 recommendations for the government and Ofsted, was approved by the committee.

The paper defines intelligent accountability as a framework that ensures schools and colleges work effectively and efficiently towards a common good and the fullest development of students; it uses a rich set of data and combines internal processes with appropriate external monitoring.

There was strong agreement that the role of Ofsted should be to validate schools' and colleges' internal assessment process, in order to develop and improve the quality of self evaluation, rather than to conduct its own quality check.

The committee debated the future role of school improvement partners and to whom they would be accountable as more schools became academies. One option put forward is that they are appointed by and report to governing bodies, as opposed to the local authority or central government.

The committee felt strongly that ASCL should continue to support contextual value-added data but that the current CVA measure should be reviewed and improved. Judgements about schools and colleges should not be based on a single set of data. The paper will be distributed to members.

Academies Bill

Public and Parliamentary Committee

The committee discussed the academies bill going through Parliament this session which deals primarily with removing the barriers at local authority level to schools becoming academies. ASCL normally advocates less primary legislation but the committee debated whether there needs to be more structure to the academies programme written into the bill.

The committee agreed on several principles as good practice. Schools moving to academy status should consult with parents and stakeholders; academy freedoms should be used to extend collaboration; and schools should consider their responsibility to all young people in the local authority, especially in regard the impact of funding for other schools. There is still a role for local authorities in looked-after children, safeguarding, coordinating special needs, and supporting primary schools.

Members were advised to proceed with caution and to wait until the full impact on funding (including hidden costs), pay and conditions, governance and other freedoms were made clear before deciding whether to become an academy.

Tribute to John Dunford

Finally, on Thursday evening, past ASCL presidents and headquarters staff joined Council members at a special dinner to pay tribute to General Secretary John Dunford for the years of service he has given to the association, to individual members and to the wider education system. John will retire on 31 August and this was his last Council meeting.

  • The next Council meeting will take place on 16-17 September in Reading.

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