Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Cloudy now, outlook brighter?

Government, including Number 10, is as much to blame as the media for confusion over the white paper. The public debate has meant that several important elements have received little attention - such as the new role of local authorities.

The media furore over List 99 and sex offenders working in schools raises important issues, but seems (at the time of writing) to have taken on a life of its own, related more to the political position of the secretary of state than to the safety of children.

There are, we now know, 22 people teaching in schools who are on the sex offenders register, but even if the figure had been zero, the media campaign would not have abated. There is a substantial section of the press that won't allow a few facts to get in the way of a good story.

ASCL contributions to this story attempted to focus on the system, not the personality. We sought - and eventually obtained - greater certainty over List 99 and an independent body to make the decisions, rather than civil servants and ministers.

Two other media stories that appeared on the day Ruth Kelly made her List 99 statement to Parliament are instructive. The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons criticised the DfES and schools because the truancy figures rose last year. Overall attendance improved, but this only appeared towards the end of the story.

GCSE results reached record levels last year after the highest ever single year rise in the number of young people with five or more high grade passes. Yet the headline in the morning papers was about a small number of academies where results had not improved.

Damage to schools

Schools and colleges can find themselves in a similar position - victims of negative stories and unable to communicate to the public a balanced view of the institution's achievements. As the article on page 18 states, reputations are hard won and easily lost.

Media education coverage at the present time is not only damaging to Ruth Kelly and the government. It damages schools and colleges too. We have had too little emphasis on the good stories and sometimes inaccurate reporting of the bad.

But we should not always blame the press. As Sue Kirkham states in her opening article, the prime minister's 'respect' agenda focuses far too much on young people and too little on the shortcomings of adults. Schools get the blame and, doubtless, another couple of policy initiatives to implement, while those who set the example do the criticising.

A few days earlier, a National Audit Office report led to headlines such as 'One Million Children in Sub-standard Schools'. The NAO report had conflated Ofsted and DfES figures in a conclusion that might more accurately have read '25 per cent of schools in bottom quartile', hardly a revelation. It is difficult to have a rational debate about education under these circumstances.

Rational debate is certainly not what has been taking place about the schools' white paper, with a succession of Downing Street inspired leaks about a new type of school being freed from local authority control. Now, it appears, the government is saying that the proposed new trust schools are little more than foundation schools with a different governing body. So, as ASCL has asked all along, why do we need them?

The bad headlines on this surely cannot be blamed on the press. The white paper is a muddle and the apparent change of direction, as well as the furore on the Labour back benches and the support of the Conservatives, would never have happened if there had been greater honesty in the first place about what was intended.

Location, location

The white paper attempts to clarify the role of the local authority. Far from reducing that role in relation to secondary schools, as we were at first led to believe, it could be argued that the role is being strengthened.

Views about local authorities among ASCL members vary according to where people work. For some, the local authority offers a good service, bringing schools together in a beneficial local partnership.

For others, their local authority is a waste of money that would be much better devolved to schools. ASCL members in colleges haven't shed any tears at being outside local authority control since incorporation in 1992, even though the Learning and Skills Council is not the most popular agency among college leaders either.

It was ironic that, in 2001, when we had at last persuaded the government to start thinking in terms of a 14 to 19 continuum, the LSC opened for business as the planning and funding body for post-16 education and training. This hardly helped rational planning of a 14 to 19 phase.

The LSC's planning arm, but not its funding arm, has since stretched down to cover the 14 to 19 phase, so that we now have two bodies responsible for 14 to 16 planning - the local authority and the local LSC.

This overlap is acknowledged in the recent DfES 14 to 19 implementation paper, but there is no easy solution. It may be that different areas reach different conclusions, with the local authority having the lead strategic role for 14 to 19 in some areas (perhaps those areas with 11 to 18 schools), the LSC having the lead 14 to 19 role in other areas, and some sort of LA/LSC partnership in others.

There is no great enthusiasm for any of these solutions among ASCL members, since the real 14 to 19 planning takes place within schools and colleges themselves and, increasingly, in partnerships and consortia of institutions devising their own progression arrangements.

Children's services

We are no longer looking at the role of the local education authority - the 'education' was dropped from LEA in the white paper - but at a local authority role defined by its new children's services directorate.

Even though the deadline for change was 2008, 127 out of 150 local authorities have already appointed directors of children's services, an uncharacteristic speed off the mark. ASCL members must capitalise on this enthusiasm and insist on more joined-up local services and, in particular, improved support for young people in trouble.

Expect the next big push from most local authorities to be on extended schools, as they develop plans to meet the government targets for 2008 and beyond. This is a sensible strategic role for local authorities, but we will have to make sure that they do not pass on to schools a mess of bureaucracy, as has frequently happened with some previous initiatives for which they have been responsible.

The greatest variety of view on local authorities among ASCL members relates to their school improvement role, where some have the staff to give high quality support, some are skilled at commissioning support from elsewhere, and some are, frankly, out of their depth.

Rightly or wrongly, they have a statutory responsibility for the quality of education in their local schools. This has been boosted by a punitive inspection regime that has delivered several hundred schools into the arms of their local school improvement service by placing them in special measures.

This role has been strengthened by the recent white paper, which places responsibility firmly on local authorities to act in the wake of a poor inspection report. It offers six possible courses of action, the first of which is to consider the sacking of the head and other school leaders.

This was not a section that endeared ASCL to the white paper and, yet again, it demonstrated that the government is intent on putting more and more pressure on school leaders without any strategic approach to the support needed by schools in this situation.

Just in time

Local authorities with good school improvement services observe the sensible dictum 'intervention in inverse proportion to success' and operate a 'just in time' policy, commissioning the right kind of support for schools that need it, at the right time, and helping schools to avoid being placed in special measures. These local authorities take pride in having no schools in special measures.

Bad local authority school improvement services operate a 'just in case' policy, wasting resources on unnecessary visits and form filling when all the information they need is readily available to them in other ways.

They try to use their own staff to advise schools, even though many of them have no one with any senior leadership experience in secondary schools. School improvement partners and the 'single conversation' will enable school leaders more easily to repel these unwanted advances.

This is where the partnerships for school improvement, about which I wrote in last month's Leader, come into play. Groups of schools working together for the common good will contain nearly all the expertise they require to improve each other's weak points and raise achievement in the locality as a whole.

The government is encouraging schools to take command of this agenda. Sensible local authorities join schools in these partnerships and devolve school improvement funding, but allow the heads to take the lead. In this way, local authorities can best fulfil their school improvement role.

And, to return to the media, working together to improve the weak and accentuate the positive is also the best way in which all local schools can ensure good headlines in the local paper.

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

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