Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Pursuing excellence

Alan Johnson

In the following except from his speech to annual conference, Education Minister Alan Johnson outlines the government's education priorities and speaks about the pressures on school and college leaders.

It is a privilege to make my first speech to ASCL's annual conference. I must start by paying tribute to ASCL, and particularly to John and Malcolm.

John, Malcolm and their colleagues bring the perspective of school and college leaders deep into the heart of Whitehall. 

If you have questioned the wisdom of some government initiatives, you should have seen the ones that they successfully scuppered or amended before they emerged from Sanctuary Buildings.  

Social partnership

When we established the social partnership, there were those who said that we couldn't import such a European approach to employment relations.

But for four years now the social partnership has provided a model of how employers and employee representatives can work together to their mutual benefit.

A degree of conflict and tension is unavoidable but we are increasingly able to resolve our difficulties in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

Successful government requires strong leadership, but successful leadership also requires the skill and confidence to listen.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, pinpoints great leadership as being a balanced blend between professional will and personal humility.

This provides food for thought for anyone fortunate enough to lead others: whether that's in business, education or politics; as an individual or an institution.

In education, above all, we in government must show humility: matching our hunger for improvements with respect for those who care just as deeply and who know our schools best.

Improving behaviour

After listening carefully to your arguments for clearer powers to deal with unruly students, we introduced new discipline and behaviour clauses into the Education and Inspections Bill.

We strongly support the right of headteachers to exclude students, but as most heads accept, this must be balanced with a right for parents and students to appeal.

As ASCL argued, without appeal panels, such decisions could only be challenged in the courts - helping no one but the lawyers. It's worth pointing out that only 1 per cent of excluded pupils are reinstated following appeal.

DfES objectives

I realise the enormous pressure that becoming a political priority places upon teachers and school leaders. And there are further substantial challenges ahead.

Our social partnership will be even more essential as we search for solutions together. Its achievements have already been significant: enhancing the workforce model to entrench a wider leadership team; providing more support staff with the chance to move into senior roles; and improving pay arrangements and working hours.

Now, there are fresh challenges: in terms of i) the Comprehensive Spending Review; ii) how we accelerate remodelling to ensure the benefits flow to everyone, and iii) how we address the challenges of school leadership in the light of the PWC report.

John and ASCL have ensured that everyone now understands that leadership is not just about the headteacher but the whole team, including the bursars and year heads.

The PWC report has increased our collective knowledge about what works and a crucial challenge for the social partnership will be exploring how this should be taken forward.

Amidst so much activity, it is important that we retain a clear view of our overall aims and objectives.

  • One: how do we continue to raise standards at every stage, for every student, sharing excellence across schools. 

  • Two: how do we close the attainment gap, breaking the pernicious link between a young person's early background and their eventual achievements.

  • Three: how do we ensure that our education system properly equips and prepares young people and the adult workforce for tomorrow's labour market which will require more graduates, better intermediate skills and fewer unskilled workers.

  • Four: how can we tackle lack of aspiration and instil a sense of worth and love of learning in all our young people.

In summary, how do we ensure that 'every child matters' becomes a living, breathing reality for our children and young people and more than just a policy framework.

Personalised learning

Perhaps the most radical change is the reform of the 14 to 19 continuum...

The second radical change concerns personalised learning and progression. Whilst this sounds to many like a perfect example of esoteric educational jargon, I've come to realise that it is actually what the best teachers and schools have always recognised as standard practice.

By next year, we'll have invested £1 billion to help schools give the time that each student needs to overcome their particular difficulties. We are consulting to see how we can better target school funding to the deprived areas which need it most, so we can move away from the sort of inequities and injustice which Malcolm has highlighted.

We are also looking at ways to focus on the progress of individual children within schools, rather than simply relying on the threshold targets for the school as a whole. It is clear from the recent consultation that you share our appetite to look afresh at performance measures.  You want assessments that help you to plan next steps, and which track and support the individual child.

You also want us to give you more credit for the great work that is done when a child makes significant progress despite having to overcome adversity, or is achieving unusually extraordinary things for their age. We shall be taking all of your ideas further in the imminent Making Good Progress pilot.

Next phase of reform

The next few years will be a period of substantial reform but I have huge confidence that Britain's teachers and school leaders will meet these challenges.

As well as supporting the leaders of today, we must also prepare the leaders of tomorrow: through schemes such as Fast Track and Future Leaders. You all play a critical role in developing the next generation and I welcome the work already under way on succession planning and the NCSL pilots in ten local areas that are looking at the potential for local solutions. You will not have to cope with all of this alone.

The next phase of educational reform - with its focus on diplomas and extended services - will put the emphasis squarely on collaboration, rather than competition, reflecting the wider community role of the school.

I welcome the work that ASCL and my good friend Robert Hill are developing on partnership working and I look forward to seeing the results.

The PWC work also gave some pointers as to how leadership teams of the future might evolve: incorporating a wider range of people from within the school as well as nearby, very much in tune with the theme of this conference: 'Leading Teams'.

Many of you will already have networks with external partners; some of you may use the trust school model to formalise and stabilise these relationships.

It may be that we should look at whether government can incentivise further collaborative approaches through performance measures and other inducements. Whatever route we take I know that your advice and guidance will help us to make the right decisions. Before concluding, I want to say a word about red tape, which I know is a perpetual frustration, even though you recognise its necessity.

We have already put in place a lighter but sharper Ofsted regime, with engagement in proportion to need. We are also putting a greater reliance on high quality self evaluation. But I am determined we should do more to reduce the level of bureaucracy. We've now opened a fruitful discussion with ASCL as part of the social partnership to look at how we can better prioritise our expectations of schools.

Our principle must be a more intelligent kind of accountability. We've introduced three-year budgets, sweeping away scores of separate funding streams. We've also rationalised at least some field-forces, given the chance for secondary heads to be challenged and supported instead by a single, accredited school improvement partner. 

I believe there is more we can do to promote 'intelligent accountability', ensuring heads, school leaders and governors can base more of their decisions according to local circumstances.

Whether we are school or college leaders, or if we are cabinet ministers, we all know the tremendous expectation and pressure that comes with this area. Any child who fails to reach their potential is a massive responsibility to bear.

Through working closely with each other, we can minimise the risk of failing any single child, improving the likelihood we will succeed in this noble quest to ensure that every child really does meet their potential in life. There could be no greater reward than that for any educational leader.

To read the full text of Alan Johnson's speech and view other keynote presentations, go to www.asclconferences.org.uk

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