Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Sustaining Leadership

Sustaining Leadership

The message that repeatedly came out at ASCL's annual conference this year is that there is work to be done by both government and the profession to improve recruitment and retention of good leaders - and it needs to happen soon.

Not surprisingly, current issues like CVA data and the new Ofsted inspection were high on the agenda at ASCL's annual conference on 17-19 March in Birmingham. But the big topic that speakers and delegates kept coming back to was sustainable school and college leadership - both what it means and how to achieve it, personally and as a profession.

The first annual conference under the ASCL banner opened to the sound of drums and trumpet fanfare - and saxophones, clarinets and an electric guitar - courtesy of the Bourneville School Big Band, who got delegates fired up for a packed three days.

Sustaining leadership was the theme for the conference and President Sue Kirkham kicked off the debate by outlining the seven areas she believes need to be addressed to ensure that leadership remains an attractive career proposition. Her column on page 4 looks at these in more detail.

However, speaking specifically on the fifth point - making pay and conditions commensurate with the responsibilities of a leadership position - she said: "We are in the midst of radical reform with the whole organisation of our schools changing and yet our pay and conditions of service have remained largely untouched."

Sue welcomed the imminent review of leaders' pay and conditions - instigated in large part thanks to ASCL's evidence last autumn - and said that the association will be keeping a close eye on it.

Speaking after Sue, Schools Minister Jacqui Smith responded by saying that the pay and conditions review board would be taking into account ASCL's book Leadership that Lasts: Sustainable School Leadership in the 21st Century.

She said that the book "sets out many areas that need to be addressed by the review. And naturally we want you - as existing leaders - to be deeply involved so as to ensure that the resulting actions will be of considerable help and support."

She acknowledged that in order to increase sustainability of leadership, school and college leaders need to be able to influence the system. To that end, the government will shortly be appointing a group of 'national leaders in education'.

"The appointment of such a group will also ensure that ministers are in close touch with the people who are actually out there working in schools," she said.

"I work with some fantastic senior civil servants and chief executives of agencies, but hardly any of them have been headteachers."

The minister also thanked ASCL members for their willingness to share their views with the government, even when both sides don't see eye to eye. "It is because of our social partnership that we can enjoy an open debate together and that John (Dunford) can sit opposite me and raise issues like the impact of CVA directly with me."

To her credit, the minister did acknowledge school leaders' concerns about contextual value-added data and inspections. She said: "All of us are clear that CVA is a tool for assessing school performance, but it is by no means the only tool.

"I know that is Ofsted's view as well and I'm confident that all of us will be able to work together to ensure that the inspection process is rigorous and rounded."

As we would expect from ASCL members, delegates' questions - which the minister answered for nearly a half hour - were courteous but to the point.

Bruce Douglas said that, with increased Ofsted inspections, changes in league tables, school improvement partners and increased local authority intervention, he feels that he has less freedom from control than he did three years ago. He asked the minister: "Do you accept that what society needs from us is our energy, imagination and professionalism, not our increasing compliance with external quality control agents?"

Joan McVittie asked whether the minister felt that it was reasonable in 12 months for her to turn around her school, which she took over three months ago when it was in the bottom 20 schools in the country.

Alan Chambers stated that, while workforce reforms are beginning to have a positive impact on classroom teachers, school leaders are faced with an ever increasing and unsustainable workload. When, he asked, did she envisage that school leaders would begin to feel the benefits of workforce reform?

In response, Jacqui Smith recognised that the raft of recent government reforms had placed undo pressure and workload on leaders, and thanked members for their professionalism and forbearance. However, she was less forthcoming on how exactly the government was planning to reduce workload.

For inspiration on reducing their own workload, delegates turned instead to ASCL's book Work-life Balance: Myth or Possibility? which was launched at the conference.

The other ASCL book published for the conference, the previously mentioned Leadership that Lasts, was referred to in several presentations on sustainable leadership.

Andy Hargreaves, from Boston College, Massachusetts, stressed that to achieve sustainability, leaders could not afford to be selfish and to improve their institution at the expense of others. For example, he said, it does not help when leaders take staff with them to a new school. Those staff are denied the chance to move into more senior roles and the opportunity to grow new leaders at the new school is lost.

He also encouraged leaders not to leave an institution too soon. In today's "ADHD lifestyle", he said, leaders can too quickly get impatient for results and look for the next challenge. It takes at least four to five years to consolidate and embed initiatives that make lasting change.

"If you leave before you have been at the school for at least five years, you will leave no legacy. It's like raising a child to the age of two and then abandoning him."

Turning the debate to succession planning, Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, argued that there needs to be a more systematic way to identify and 'fast track' potential new leaders.

"It takes, on average, about ten years of cumulative development to become a highly effective school leader. That is going to have to be speeded up if we are going to successfully replace all those who will leave in the next few years," he said.

"If education was a business, potential leaders would be identified in their first year in teaching and given managed opportunities to experience a range of different contexts - urban, rural, multi-ethnic, large, small - in order to fast track them towards senior leadership. That does not happen in our education system."

In between plenary speakers, delegates had more than 20 seminar sessions to choose from, ranging from the latest on pay and conditions to dealing with parents.

From Seven Kings High School, Sir Alan Steer and Tracy Smith made the case that improving behaviour is achieved by setting high expectations for learning and establishing support mechanisms for staff and students in order to achieve them.

In his update on the 'new relationship with schools', Chris Tweedale from the DfES shared the latest on the school profile. He emphasised that local authorities and others should not be asking schools for separate documentation and leaders have a right to turn down these requests.

During the seminar on 14-19 diploma developments, delegates raised concerns about implementation in rural areas and the unlikelihood of the diplomas being a route to university. Speaker Mary Curnock Cook of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority confirmed for delegates that students' entitlement to the first five diplomas did not start until 2013, even though they are being rolled out in 2008.

In a plenary session titled What's Your Point? Helping Schools Reclaim the Core Purpose, Alistair Smith of Alite argued that an institution's core purpose should be at the heart of all decisions.

"Time taken to debate core purpose, to define it and to re-visit it, is time well spent. When the difficult choices come along, clarity over core purpose will provide your answers," he said. "Anomalies only arise when someone else provides or defines your core purpose for you."

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion neatly brought the conference back to the heart of the matter - teaching and learning - when he talked about being introduced to the world of poetry by his secondary school English teacher.

He stressed the need to introduce students to new ideas, saying: "Literature exists in order to make new contacts, not simply to confirm connections which already exist. It exists to take us across boundaries, to strike up new kinds of relationships with ourselves and our imaginations, to put us in other people's shoes."

Bringing the conference to a close on Sunday, John Dunford echoed this thought and tied it neatly into sustainability in his final remarks to delegates: "We can indeed let young minds soar and change lives for the better. That is our indelible commitment to improve the life chances of young people, our belief in the power and purpose of learning.

"No quick fix can do that. We can only do it sustainably."

Diary date

Join us for the 2007 ASCL annual conference on 9-11 March in London where the theme will be 'leading teams'.

More and more schools are finding the ASCL annual conference to be excellent professional development for the whole leadership team and are building it into their schedule of training days. Non-members are welcome.

Places can be reserved now; more details will be available on the website at www.ascl.org.uk and in the e-newsletter late in the autumn term.

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