A model of good partnership
A new year. A new name. A seamless transfer, we intend, to a new and thriving organisation.
The last 12 months has seen the fastest growth ever in the association's membership; the old organisation has given a good legacy to the new. More assistant heads and more bursars and business managers have reduced the average age of ASCL members and increased the proportion of women members too.
While continuing to give the high quality service provided by SHA, I hope that ASCL will be an even more vibrant organisation, truly representative of the modern school and college leadership team.
We have a vital role to play in the national education debate. After the hardest term that members have ever known, with staff restructuring on a very difficult timescale and self-evaluation to meet the challenges of a new inspection framework, we could have done without the muddled introduction of a white paper, and a much-hyped report from Sir Andrew Foster on the future of further education that added little to the debate on the role for this important sector.
This provides ASCL with a unique opportunity to set out our vision of the way forward for schools and colleges. In March we shall publish an important report on the leadership and governance of schools in the future.
That will be set firmly in the context of the ASCL philosophy of a system based on partnership instead of competition, balanced with the right sort of freedoms for school and college leaders.
Lessons in ubuntu
As I write this, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is on the radio talking about 'ubuntu', his uniquely South African concept of how a person is a person only through other people, which was the theme of the inspiring International Confederation of Principals (ICP) convention in Cape Town in July.
He speaks of how HIV/AIDS can be conquered only by working with others, how apartheid was overcome not by individuals working on their own but by people of all races working together, how the future of South Africa depends on co-operative effort.
At the ICP convention he spoke of how people must work together to improve schools in South Africa, some of which have hardly any books or commercial learning resources.
It is surely just as true that we in the UK - where so many have so much - can learn from the spirit of ubuntu. Our students grow into sensible and useful adults through their contacts with others.
Our teachers develop professionally through learning from other teachers, in school and elsewhere. Our schools grow through learning from other schools. Exactly the same principles apply to colleges.
At several conferences in the autumn term, I spoke about the ASCL model of partnership for school improvement. It is equally applicable to college partnerships and to collaboration between schools and colleges, which is increasing as institutions seek to offer a wider range of courses for 14 to 19 year-olds.
Our greatest challenge is to bring about system improvement. Our moral purpose as leaders - of whatever type of school or college - is that everyone is entitled to a good education - wherever that may take place. In a 21st century education system, improvement is not good enough if it comes patchily. Success right across the system is demanded of us.
This has profound implications for the way that school and college leaders do their jobs and the way in which we relate to other institutions. First, we have to find the best way of working with others. Then we have a clear opportunity to take control of the system improvement agenda in a way that we have never done before.
End of funding streams
The new relationship with schools in England should help to focus priorities in the schools sector. If this aspect of intelligent accountability really works - and it has got off to a good start in most schools in the 27 participating areas this year - we shall see an end to bidding for a thousand funding streams and accounting for how we spend the money on a thousand mind-numbing forms.
We are promised that the money will come in a small number of pots that can be put into a single budget. Leaders will account for the way the funds have been spent and the impact they have had through the single conversation with the school improvement partner (SIP).
The SIP will report to the local authority, the LSC, the DfES and others. The head will, of course, still have a direct accountability relationship with the governing body, but the others will be one step removed.
The SIP accountability role is important but their school improvement role is even more fundamental.
In the ASCL system improvement model, the SIP and the head - using available data and the school's self-evaluation - together identify strengths and weaknesses. They may find that, say, the science department is under-performing.
The head takes ownership of this problem and, after looking for best practice within his/her own school, takes it to the local partnership of schools, which could - and increasingly does - include the local college.
The partnership heads determine whether support is available from inside the partnership or if the school needs help from outside. To be fully effective, these partnerships must include all local schools.
Local authorities' role
School improvement is one of the areas in which ASCL wants to see local authorities commissioning groups of schools to take control - and providing the schools with the resources currently held by the local authority.
The best local authorities will recognise that they could be part of this potentially fruitful partnership, providing 'just in time' mutual support to schools, not the 'just in case' advisory service that has hitherto soaked up too much funding that ought to be in school budgets.
The education white paper presents a rather different world, with little recognition that the strength of the secondary school system has come increasingly from networking and partnership.
It may be some time before we see whether the reality of the future is the white paper's vision of stand-alone schools, with just a nod towards partnership, or the strong collaborative networks of the kind promoted by ASCL, the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) and the National College for School Leadership.
My money is on the second. Only by working together can weaker schools be supported and stronger schools improve the parts of their provision that are not up to standard.
The DfES five-year strategy of 2004 contained unresolved tensions between autonomy and collaboration. Policy developments since then have confused the situation even more. We have had a prospectus on education improvement partnerships, which was strong on collaboration, but without adequate incentives for schools to form them or local authorities to adopt the necessary commissioning relationship.
We have had Every Child Matters, which demands a joint approach and good co-ordination by the local authority. More recently, we have had the white paper, promoting autonomy and barely mentioning collaboration. This very confused picture is hardly a vision for the future.
There are tensions, too, between the twin aims of high achievement and high equity. The white paper has plenty on the pursuit of high achievement, little on high equity. Autonomy can bring high achievement for some, but that's not the problem in the UK. All the international studies point to equity as the greater problem.
That's why it's so important that our partnership policies work if we are to raise both achievement and equity - or perhaps we should just all move to Finland, where they do these things so much better and have the results to show for it!
More confusion please
Having criticised the government for the confusing compromise that the white paper turned out to be, I admit to rather liking government confusion. Government certainty tends to create greater centralisation and more work for school and college leaders. Government confusion creates opportunities for school and college leaders to steer the agenda.
By working with others in partnership, there are immense opportunities for ASCL members not only to improve their own institutions, but to demonstrate system leadership of a high order.
Competition between institutions will always be there, but by basing our work on partnership instead of competition, working with others instead of against them, we can change young people's lives for the better.
To help us do this, we need government policies that promote collaboration instead of competition. The most important signal for that would be to have performance indicators that promote partnership, instead of always being focused on the individual institution. Where schools and/or colleges are working in federations or consortia, their results should, if they wish it, be published jointly.
The present time brings new opportunities for school and college leaders - opportunities to use our knowledge, our skills, our energy, our creativity and our vision for the good of our own institutions and for the good of the system as a whole.
Happy new year!
By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders