Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

One on one

Table football

The 'new relationship with schools' is one of the least popular government initiatives, according to a recent survey. Perhaps it is because school leaders aren't convinced the DfES is serious about intelligent accountability.

Thought for the Day on Radio 4 has provided the inspiration for many a school assembly - wise words, calmly delivered at 7.50 am and heard by ASCL members on their way to work as they think through the problems of the day ahead.

The Rt Revd Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, is particularly good at linking the national news with the viewpoint of the individual citizen.

His Thought for the Day on 25 April reflected on the financial crisis in the health service and on individuals' experience of health, either as patients or as health workers. He recognised that his words applied as much to education as to health:

"I'm always sympathetic to those employed in the world of education or health, not only because they are involved in something so important for the life of the community, but also because they are always having changes foisted upon them.

"We all went to school and so we all think that we know what's what about schools and teaching. We're all ill from time to time and need a doctor and so we have strong views about how the NHS should be organised.

"The worlds of education and health are therefore worlds of dramatic change as new ministers of all persuasions come and go - each wishing to make their mark in an area of life they feel they know a great deal about.

"Visionary pilot schemes are tested with the most enthusiastic people and then, rather too quickly perhaps, run out into the whole organisation...

"There are financial problems in parts of the NHS at the moment, but nobody thinks that those in the medical, nursing or caring professions are there only for the remuneration they receive. Let's give them the dignity due to those who deliver such an important service for the community and bring some stability into their professional lives.

"Anything worthwhile takes time to become fruitful. We need the courage to ride out short-term difficulties - perpetual revolution doesn't bring out the best in either people or organisations."

New minister, new priorities

As I write, a major reshuffle of the Cabinet has been taking place, with Alan Johnson taking the place of Ruth Kelly as secretary of state.

Alan Johnson is a highly competent minister, with a successful career behind him as leader of the Communications Workers Union, experience of the DfES as further and higher education minister, and two Cabinet posts in two years at Work and Pensions, and Trade and Industry. Now he has become the fifth secretary of state for education and skills since 1997, the fourth since 2001.

The average length of time in post for an education secretary of state is 2.2 years. (I know this because I spend long hours in meetings in the Abbey Room at the DfES, where all the previous incumbents' photographs hang.)

Each new secretary of state comes in with his or her own priorities. Unfortunately for us, the previous secretary of state's priorities are still being developed or implemented. The new initiatives are simply added to the list.

On taking office, Ruth Kelly spoke about parent power and the need for school meals to improve. So new measures were developed for the education bill to put parent power into practice and the national obesity trend was supposed to be halted by Jamie Oliver and a paltry sum of money distributed to each school to make school food healthier.

By the time you read this, I hope that Alan Johnson, a month into office, will not have announced any pet projects, but will have spoken about the importance of the current agenda and the need for the government to support schools in implementing it.

ASCL is working with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) in a project to help schools to engage parents better in children's education - a good example of the leaders of the profession turning a less than helpful announcement into something of real use to schools.

In the Guardian Headspace survey in April, the 'healthy schools' initiative was second to 'every child matters' in the list of government initiatives popular with heads (of both primary and secondary schools).

We recognise that we have a contribution to making children healthier, even though we know that what they eat outside school and the marketing strategies of the food industry have a much greater effect than what they consume for school lunch.

Strange contradiction

The third most popular initiative, according to Headspace, with 66 per cent of heads in favour, was school self-evaluation and the lighter touch inspection. At the other end of the scale, with only academies below it, was the new relationship with schools, with just 25 per cent in favour.

Even allowing for the fact that this was a combined figure for primary and secondary schools, this represents a strange contradiction, since school self-evaluation and lighter touch inspections are part of the new relationship.

The primary school figure can perhaps be explained by the fact that school improvement partners (SIPs) have started in only a small number of local authority areas. Of secondary heads, 41 per cent were in favour of the new relationship, 32 per cent in the middle, 12 per cent against and 14 per cent don't know.

There have been largely positive reports from schools in the 26 pilot local authority areas for secondary school SIPs. The so-called 'single conversation' - which is actually a dialogue over several visits - is widely reported to be challenging but beneficial, and strongly linked to the school's self-evaluation.

Many heads make the point that it is far better than the previous visits from the local link inspector, which the single conversation has replaced. The most enthusiastic heads are those whose SIP is a serving head.

It is regrettable that the number of serving and recently retired heads acting as SIPs is below the target figure of 80 per cent. Hopefully, when the new system is fully operational, more heads will see the benefits of working as a SIP and put themselves forward for accreditation.

The downside of having to spend up to 19 days out of school per year, training and carrying out SIP work in two or three schools, is outweighed by the benefits to their own school of the wider knowledge and improved skills that come from acting as a SIP.

The new relationship with schools was originally a response to this association's work on intelligent accountability, which came at the same time as a Cabinet Office report on the need to reduce bureaucracy in schools.

School improvement partners are intended to replace the multiple accountabilities under which school leaders have suffered for many years. They are also there to help school leaders to identify measures, including external support, needed for the school to improve under-performing areas.

A further improvement in the accountability regime is the new inspection framework, with over 75 per cent of school leaders judging it to be better than the previous model. The short notice is deemed acceptable and the link to school self-evaluation - long advocated by the association - is good when it is done well.

However, in the minority of schools dissatisfied by their experience of the new framework, too many inspectors have slavishly adhered to the grade in the contextualised value-added (CVA) Panda.

Weaker inspectors do not seem to have the confidence to use the CVA Panda as evidence to inform their judgement of the quality of the school. In these cases, the CVA grade becomes the judgement. I have taken this up in a long letter to the DfES, published on the ASCL website.

School profile

The third part of the new relationship with schools is the replacement of the governors' annual report and the annual meeting for parents with the school profile, to be completed by the end of this term. The introduction of the school profile has not gone well and ASCL is pressing for changes.

The fourth aspect of the new relationship is school self-evaluation, already mentioned in the context of its link to inspection and the single conversation. The pressure to complete the self-evaluation form (SEF) has overshadowed the undoubted benefits of greater reliance being placed on the school's own quality assurance.

Since external inspection now focuses much less on lesson observation, the new inspection is inevitably much more an inspection of leadership and management, much less of teachers in their classrooms, except to verify the judgements made by school leaders in their self-evaluation.

This places a premium on good quality classroom observation and ASCL and the other unions in the social partnership are currently engaged in lengthy discussions about classroom observation in this new context.

The new relationship with schools will take time to bed down. An important part of it - the single conversation - has not even started in most of the country.

As the Bishop of Southwark said, anything worthwhile takes time to become fruitful and we need courage to ride out short-term difficulties. But much depends on government ministers understanding that - again in Bishop Butler's words - perpetual revolution doesn't bring out the best in either people or organisations.

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

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