Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Trust the experts

Acrobats

In this extract from his speech to the annual conference in March, John Dunford calls on the government to put more trust in school and college leaders to deliver.

When we asked Robert Hill to work with the association on a project on school leadership and governance in the future, we did not set out to produce a book entitled Leadership that lasts.

Yet that was the project's inevitable destination, given the unsustainability of much of what has happened in schools in the last few years. As Robert says in chapter 6: "Too much of current education policy is hooked on interventions that are not sustainable over the long term."

Too many education policies are not rooted in the realities of school life. The academic year 2004-05 saw an immense amount of change - much of it good - beginning to work its way through the system.

This year, all these measures have begun to be implemented in schools and colleges, as pre-pilot has moved to pilot and pathfinder to national roll-out. At the same time, many new issues have appeared on our desks.

The recent education bill comes not from an evidence-based study of what is needed, but from the government party's manifesto for the 2005 general election.

Much of it comes not from a belief in the power of school leaders to effect change, but from a lack of trust. And lack of trust leads to bureaucracy and over-accountability.

Increased pressure

Perhaps more than any previous year, this has been a year in which the pressure on school and college leaders has grown, not least from Ofsted.

Just as the first term of the new Ofsted framework in 2003 was a bad time to be inspected, so the start of the latest framework has caused problems.

I know that the vast majority of schools inspected last term found it to be a considerable improvement on their previous inspection.

They have told Ofsted so, but the fact is that Ofsted remains a punitive system of inspection. Why else could it be that England has 244 schools in special measures, Wales has one, Scotland and Northern Ireland none?

ASCL welcomed the new inspection framework, linked to school self-evaluation, as a more intelligent approach to accountability, but we always said that schools should not be placed in special measures on the basis of a very short inspection.

The ASCL recipe is to give the school a notice to improve, then plan with them a programme of support on a reasonable timescale.

Last term more schools were judged inadequate. Hardly a surprise, since David Bell warned that the new framework would raise the bar. It has certainly done that. The 11 per cent of schools judged outstanding and the 50 per cent judged good are heartily to be congratulated.

But what of the 30 per cent judged satisfactory? A sensible use of Ofsted's resources will mean more proportionate (ie less) inspection for 20 per cent or so of the best schools. But proportionate inspection is also likely to result in more frequent inspections for some of the 30 per cent of 'satisfactory' schools. Yet weighing the pig more often does not fatten it.

Ofsted's big stick

Ever since Ofsted was formed in 1992, the government has used Ofsted as a stick to beat schools with. For all its glorious history of independence, HMI has become the government's enforcer, called into service by secretaries of state whenever they want to check our compliance. Consider this:

We will give parents the right to call for a special Ofsted inspection if they fear their child's school is failing. If the inspectors confirm this view, the school's management will have to be changed.

New Labour, 2005? No, it is from the Conservative manifesto, 2001. The 2005 Labour manifesto version was:

Ofsted will be given new powers to respond to parental complaints and where necessary to close failing schools or replace failing management.

Translated into the education bill, that emerges as a new statutory power for Ofsted (heavens above, do they need yet more power?) to investigate parental complaints and instigate an inspection. Then, if the school is found wanting:

The actions we expect local authorities to consider are [first in a list of six bullet points] the immediate change of headteacher and/or members of the school management team.

And ASCL members are losing their jobs - school leadership has become a vulnerable occupation, especially in schools in challenging circumstances. Take the case of Trevor:

With a successful record as a headteacher in another area, Trevor became head of a school in special measures. A new PFI build had already started. The previous head had set impossible targets, which Trevor was not allowed to re-negotiate. Unsurprisingly, the school could not meet its targets and the PFI project took up an immense amount of the head's time. So did the frequent inspection visits, described by the local authority as 'support'. Trevor was dismissed and left his post a few days before the school moved into its new buildings.

The timescales and expectations placed on him were totally unrealistic. Or the case of Anne:

Anne had a record of unbroken professional success, achieving excellence in leadership from an Ofsted inspection. She was asked by the local authority to take on a failing school. Her new school was in free fall but, too soon, the inspectors arrived. Her leadership was described as poor. From excellent to poor in 18 months. The response of the local authority was: "It's all over for you now."

Regrettably, Trevor and Anne are by no means the only people in this position, where our field officers have had to negotiate an exit deal for members whose only failing was their inability to do the impossible.

Sustainable leadership

Being a school or college leader is getting tougher. We are working longer hours, with higher expectations, more accountability and a multitude of masters to serve in a way that often takes our eye off the ball of teaching and learning.

The job is becoming more vulnerable and a single inspection report can end a glowing career. Fewer people are applying for secondary headships than ever and these recruitment and retention problems will get worse before they get better, with so many school leaders reaching retirement age in the next ten years.

Heads have become an endangered species. Contributing more than anything else to the shortage of school leaders is the "unending stream of new legislation and regulation, memoranda and instructions, guidance and advice flood in ... requiring detailed conformity to procedures and protocols, detailed record-keeping and provision of information in specified formats", to quote from Onora O'Neill's 2002 Reith Lectures.

The Implementation Review Unit (IRU) is in a good position to argue against these burdensome initiatives and regulations, and has held a number at bay, but bureaucracy is like the hydra - every time you cut off one of its heads another two grow. Each has to be individually strangled.

School food reform is an example of a new head on the hydra. It has an important aim in mind - to improve the health of our children - and we support that. But, if there are different ways of introducing a new policy, the most bureaucratic is normally chosen.

So we have lots of hype; photocalls with Jamie Oliver; a new set of regulations; schools to do this, that and the other to solve the problems of obesity in society. Soon, there will doubtless be a three-page definition of a 'crisp' to enforce the new directive.

And, to support this work, School Standards Grant 105b gives to a 1,000-pupil school the princely sum of £2,000.

Our members in colleges don't have this particular food regulation nonsense, but are even more drowned in bureaucracy than schools.

DfES review

Low bureaucracy is an essential component of sustainable leadership, as is a climate that trusts rather than instructs. The DfES leadership review, due to take place this summer, must have sustainability at its core.

Only then will the number of applicants for leadership positions increase, the shortlists lengthen, the early resignations reduce, and the job become do-able by the many talented people we have in our profession who are not coming forward for promotion to senior leadership positions.

We are not afraid of change; in fact we spend our professional lives leading and managing it. But we do fear too much change too quickly, without the time to implement it properly, let alone evaluate it. And we fear changes that are not rooted in evidence.

It is ironic, is it not, that the most widely supported part of the education bill was the chapter on behaviour, based on the recommendations of the expert practitioner group led by ASCL member Sir Alan Steer. Ironic, because this was the one part of the white paper that had its roots in what really happens in school, the one part in which the recommendations come from leading professionals rather than politicians.

Why, one might ask, is it ok to have a practitioner group on behaviour, on which the government knows that it does not have the answers, but not on other issues on which everyone else knows that it does not have the answers.

Should we not also have a practitioner group on assessment? On accountability? On data?

Give us the reins and we will take the system forward. Put more trust in us.

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders