Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Completing the picture

Jigsaw of the globe

In his last Leader column, John Dunford looks back at how ASCL campaigns have shaped the public policy agenda.

First and foremost, ASCL is an association that serves its members, both in offering protection on an individual level when needed and in advising on the myriad of issues they face. As a professional association, its members have always made it clear that they want us to campaign strongly not only for members - pay, conditions, pensions - but also on issues that affect schools and colleges and the young people who attend them.

I have spent much of my 22 years on ASCL Council trying, as part of the ASCL team, to change public policy in education. This has been underpinned by the association's public policy agenda and the methodology for campaigning to get our ideas implemented.

There are still many issues on which we have campaigned that remain to be implemented. There is much to strive for, especially in the current climate of funding cuts, a period that could well last for several years.

For my 50th and final Leader article, here is a summary of ASCL's main public policy issues in recent years, on most of which the association continues to campaign.

14-19 education ASCL has been leading the debate on the 14-19 education and qualifications system since the mid-1980s. Through careful building of alliances, a consensus emerged about the best way forward and this was the basis of the Tomlinson report in 2004. The Education Committee has continued to develop our policy and the pursuit of a general diploma is surely the right way forward.

Assessment ASCL has had some success in the creation of a Chartered Institute for Educational Assessors and in the abolition of the Key Stage 3 tests, but the cost of examinations and the way in which examination and test results are used and abused indicates that there is still far to go if we are to have a more rational assessment system.

Intelligent accountability It has passed into the educational lexicon, but we need to create a consensus around what is meant by intelligent accountability (as opposed to what it is not, which is much easier). The 'new relationship with schools' had some successes, but perhaps a new 'new relationship' is needed now. ASCL has advocated performance measures without the perverse incentives of threshold measures such as the proportion with five A* to C grades (or equivalent) and will need to campaign hard to ensure that these are replaced with more rational, intelligent measures.

School self-evaluation and external inspection There is a stronger inter-relationship now, partly as a result of ASCL's lobbying for them to be the twin arms of a quality assurance process for schools and colleges. There is still some way to go before the inspection system makes a really good fit with mature self-evaluation.

Leadership In arguing for more distributed leadership and involvement of senior support staff, ASCL has been at the forefront of the development of school leadership, now taken up by the National College. However, it is perhaps in ASCL's articulation of the benefits of wider leadership ('system leadership') that we have been most influential on the government view of school leadership and the potential for secondary school leaders to lead the system. Robert Hill's first ASCL book, Leadership That Lasts, was timely and influential. We must continue to ensure that the government and the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) share our view of the breadth of the school leadership role.

Collaboration and partnership Having spent all the years of my headship working within - and, wherever possible, against - the prevailing culture of competition between schools, and between schools and colleges, it has been good to see the government move in recent years towards a culture of collaboration and partnership between institutions. Robert Hill's second ASCL book, Achieving More Together, again put forward a strong message at just the right time. Our views on developing a more coherent system of school support, delivered by school leaders, were influential too. Alas, the culture of collaboration probably hasn't gone far enough yet to ensure that it is embedded. It will be a major challenge to all ASCL members in this new climate to maintain a high degree of partnership working in order to sustain the wider moral purpose of our local leadership role.

Choice and diversity It is difficult to say whether the Conservative government up to 1997 or New Labour thereafter produced more green and white papers with 'greater choice and diversity' as an aim. ASCL failed to persuade anyone in power that we needed greater 'diversity within' rather than 'diversity between' schools and the doctrine of specialism pulled schools in different directions. At least our campaign for specialist status to be open to all, rather than to a select few, was successful in persuading Charles Clarke to publish A New Specialist System. In the context of the coalition government's policy on school structures, it is particularly important to be secure about the principles on which our policy is based.

Fairer funding Although others in the association with specialist knowledge have developed the detail of what constitutes a fairer funding system, I have done my best to disseminate the message, which is of such critical importance to ASCL members and their institutions. There is now an excellent opportunity to influence the coalition Government on the way forward for a 'pupil premium'.

Funding quantum There have been many occasions since 1997 when ASCL has commented on the level of funding, including welcoming the real terms increases and criticising the way in which funds have been frittered away on numerous initiatives or have been of a short-term nature. With the grim prospect now of funding cuts in public services, we continue to articulate the case for adequate funding of schools and colleges.

National framework, local flexibility This has been a mantra for many ASCL policies, not least in pay and conditions, in which our attempt to reform and simplify the pay structure a few years ago failed to make any headway. In the context of the coalition government's policy, ASCL now has to decide how much local flexibility its members want on pay and conditions.

Post-qualification applications to higher education (PQA) I have worked for PQA since about 1994 and ASCL produced a report that had a significant impact on government policy. However, universities are even harder to shift than governments and we still have a long way to go to achieve our aims.

Standard school year As a member of the Local Government Association's former committee on the organisation of the school year, I strongly believe that changes to the academic year would be beneficial to the education of young people. Some progress, but not enough, has been made towards a standard spring but few areas have adopted the earlier start to the autumn term and the two-week break in October.

Evidence-based policy-making ASCL has frequently criticised the process of 'government by announcement', the most consistent feature of which is a complete lack of evidence on the effects of whatever initiative is being announced. Too often policies have appeared to be a solution in search of a problem. To provide a more solid basis for policies, grounded in evidence, I have argued that there should be a chief educational officer, akin to the chief medical officer, based in the Department for Education - a role that, up to 1992 when Ofsted was created outside the department, was carried out by the senior chief inspector.

The 2020 futures project Led for ASCL by Robert Hill, it has set out scenarios for social, economic and political developments as they will affect education. Using this as a basis, ASCL has the opportunity to lead thinking on the way forward for the education service. At a time when others are looking back, the voice of ASCL will continue to have a big role to play in shaping the national debate on education.

Enormous privilege

The strength of ASCL Council lies in the breadth and depth of discussion that has gone into the development of these policies. It has been extremely fulfilling professionally to have been part of the ASCL team that has worked for these policies to be accepted and implemented.

It has also been an enormous privilege to have spent the last 12 years leading the wonderful ASCL team. I loved being head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School too, but there came a time when I felt it was right to move from that great school, and I feel similarly now that the time is right to hand over the reins as general secretary.

I shall be sad to leave, but new opportunities open up and I hope to continue to be involved in education for a while yet. I am excited by the things I am currently involved in: Whole Education and Worldwide Volunteering, both of which I chair, are organisations in the right place at the right time. The National College, Teach First and Future Leaders, on whose boards I sit, all have an immensely important job to do and I look forward to supporting them.

But my final word must be one of thanks to you, the members. As SHA and ASCL general secretary, I have been constantly supported by you in the most affirmative way. Now it is my turn to thank you and to express my appreciation and admiration of what you do.

The job of school and college leadership is so much more challenging and accountable than when I was a school leader from 1974 to 1998. I am in awe of what you are achieving as school and college leaders in this era. Good luck to you all.


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