Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Predictably puzzling

Green dice

Once again, the government failed to complete the whole puzzle with the white paper. Sue Kirkham makes a case for what should have gone in this autumn's document.

When you read this article you will be nearing the end of one of the busiest terms which SHA members have had to face for some years. You might well be forgiven therefore for having left the government's education white paper unopened in your 'to read' tray, especially since it made its appearance during most schools' half term week.

When asked by journalists in the week before its publication what I would like to see in the white paper, my response had been "a blank sheet of paper", in recognition of the fact that our agenda was already huge and that we needed time to work on the matters in hand.

SHA is conscious that leaders are already overloaded and we have taken every opportunity to make ministers and civil servants aware of this.

Yet, talking to members around the country, I sensed a deeper unease. SHA members do not object to hard work when the agenda is focused on issues which matter. On second thought, I would have welcomed a white paper which faced up to some big, unresolved issues and thus enabled us all to move the improvement agenda forward.

All leaders are aware that management of change requires a clear vision, followed by securing commitment to that vision. We are only too happy to commit to the government's vision of excellent education for all.

Having a vision, however, will not bring about change if the vision is not backed up by clear strategies and attention to operational detail.

The current educational scene reminds me of one of those annoying puzzles which has two possible pictures but, unlike the individual puzzle solver who can decide which picture to complete and find the correct sides of the pieces, those trying to solve the educational puzzle are obliged to keep changing from one picture to the other: collaboration or competition, autonomous schools or central control.

Add to this the fact that the pieces of the puzzle haven't been properly cut so don't fit together and that, as in many puzzles, there is too much blue sky and not enough recognisable detail.

The white paper gives numerous examples of the conflict which remains in government thinking between central control and local autonomy. The operational mechanisms for a system driving its own improvement are now in place: new Ofsted framework, emphasis on self-evaluation, school improvement partners, more intelligent accountability.

However, these mechanisms won't work unless government is prepared to let go of the detail and concentrate on the building blocks.

The white paper does little to clarify how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, for example, the 'youth matters' green paper gives local authorities a new role in guidance and advice, a role which makes them responsible for funding not just for schools but also for colleges.

How will this work? What is the role of the LSC in this area? The white paper blithely suggests that LAs and LSCs should work more closely together. How will academies and indeed the new trust schools fit into systems which appear to be giving local authorities new powers? Are all local authorities clear about their new role?

It is hardly surprising that school and college leaders are feeling confused. They want to be able to concentrate their time and effort on raising achievement, not be distracted by constant changes to structures which mean starting the puzzle all over again.

I also remain concerned at the government's approach to addressing deprivation which continues to focus additional funding only on metropolitan areas. The white paper, for example, has money for key stage 3 going to "local authorities with the largest number of underachieving and deprived children".

While these funds are welcome, why can they not be directed at individual children since we now have pupil level information? Directing money at metropolitan areas was understandable in a first term but leaving deprivation and disaffection unaddressed in rural areas and small towns is damaging.

Despite our concerns and anxieties, I hope that all SHA members will take a well earned break at Christmas and find the time to relax with friends and families.

I would also like to thank you for continuing to raise money for the Sri Lanka fund. The anniversary of the tsunami on 26 December will be a difficult time for pupils and teachers in Sri Lanka and our continuing support means a lot to them.

However hard our lot in putting together the educational puzzle, few of us will ever encounter the challenges faced by our colleagues in many other parts of the world.

By Sue Kirkham, SHA President

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders