Scoring a goal for ASCL members
Within Whitehall, ASCL works constantly on behalf of members to prevent or amend policies that would have a detrimental effect on schools and colleges. John Dunford shares some of ASCL's recent successes.
In Alan Johnson's speech to ASCL annual conference, published in the May Leader, he said: "John [Dunford], Malcolm [Trobe] and their ASCL 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."
We constantly represent members' views in the DfES and elsewhere and the best officials recognise the power of an argument that is based on the realities of school and college life.
The ASCL president is very often the only person at Whitehall meetings who is a serving practitioner and it is very powerful when he or she says (as quite often happens), "This will not work in my school and I will tell you why."
Because the government consults ASCL on such a wide range of issues and at an early stage, quite often the topics under discussion are not in the public domain and so it is not possible to write in Leader that the association has succeeded in seeing off another wild idea that subsequently never saw the light of day.
Although it is inevitably more difficult to change things once they have been published, it does mean that we can tell members when it happens. And recently, it has happened with satisfying frequency. Your association is proving its effectiveness in just the way that Alan Johnson suggested in his speech.
Post-16 value added
The implementation of the post-16 value added measure has been deferred for a year after representations from ASCL officers. The measure was due to go live in September 2007, but ASCL believes the methodology in the pilot to be flawed and the DfES has agreed to a year's postponement so that the measure can be further refined.
A letter from the DfES to local authorities in January 2007 stated that special needs coordinators (SENCOs) would have to be qualified teachers and that they must be on the school leadership team. The first of these two stipulations, both of which arose from commitments given in the House of Lords debate on the Education and Inspections Bill 2006, appeared to fly in the face of the workforce reform agreement, or at the very least, go against its spirit. The second represented an unacceptable degree of centralisation.
On the first point, ASCL has no problem with qualified teacher SENCOs directing professional work with children with special needs, but it is essential that the large amount of administrative work associated with SEN does not fall on qualified teachers. Schools should be able to define their own structures of responsibility for SEN.
On SENCOs in the leadership team, it is ASCL's view that ministers should not be telling schools who they should have on their leadership team. Some schools may have SENCOs at that level to give greater weight to the role, but some will have other structures, with a member of the leadership team line managing the SENCO. Fortunately the DfES accepted our representations and there will be no compulsion.
Another recent area of potential compulsion is school councils, on which Professor Geoff Whitty, director of the Institute of Education in London, is producing a report for the government. At one point it appeared that ministers were minded to place a statutory responsibility on schools to have a school council.
ASCL pointed out that 95 per cent of schools already have a council and the issue was not so much the other five per cent, but the wider field of student voice as part of personalised learning and the effectiveness with which that voice is being heard.
There can be no question that that effectiveness is increasing; a move to compulsory school councils would mean a step backwards while schools make certain that they have ticked a box marked 'Have a school council'. ASCL will continue to campaign vigorously against compulsion, at least in England.
It is too late in Wales where school councils have been made compulsory, imposed with a degree of micro-management that moved many heads to hollow laughter, if not to tears.
On examination invigilation, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) issued a new set of invigilation guidelines, which stated that any teacher in the examination room at the start of the examination must remain for an hour - the period after which no student may enter the room and sit the paper.
Apart from being in direct opposition to the guidance on workforce reform, which states that teachers can be in the examination room at the start and end of examination in order to check that everything is satisfactory, this represented an appalling lack of trust in the professionalism of teachers.
ASCL alerted other associations and the DfES to the new regulation and sent a strongly worded letter to the chief executive of the JCQ, which resulted in a 180 degree turn and an acceptable fresh set of invigilation instructions being issued.
Local authority powers
Guidance on schools causing concern is a new DfES policy that sets out the responsibilities and powers of local authorities for dealing with schools in difficulties. This document was produced by the DfES during the passage of the education bill in 2005 to reassure MPs that local authority powers were to be strengthened.
While ASCL has not been able to stop the document - that would have been too much to hope for, given the political high-stakes surrounding its inception - we have negotiated many changes.
The ASCL response to the policy consultation, which is on our website, criticised the tone and length of the document, as well as the specific paragraphs setting out the reasons why local authorities might need to intervene and the timescales on which action had to be taken.
On all except the timescales ASCL has won concessions. The timescales unfortunately are dictated in primary legislation - surely far too much detail to be included in primary legislation (will they ever learn?) - so it was not possible to change them.
PFI legacy issues
Led by the president, ASCL has this year made a strong case to the DfES to consider the 'legacy' issues on PFI - the issues that remain for schools several years after the builders have disappeared.
We are delighted to hear that, following a meeting with ASCL, the DfES has appointed someone to lead on the legacy matters and the association will be meeting with her shortly after she takes up post in June. There is also a government operational task force to help schools with concerns related to PFI schemes. Another good result from ASCL lobbying.
On all of these issues, ASCL sees itself as a constructive critic of government policy, putting forward our views vigorously, but politely, and winning more often than not through the authenticity that comes from representing the views and experience of school and college leaders. That is why we are effective.
Lobby for change
By no means all our time is spent fending off new initiatives. Much of ASCL's lobbying activity is pro-active, pressing for the adoption by the government and its agencies of our considered policies, which have been developed and passed by ASCL Council. In this context, it is good to see so much of this edition of Leader devoted to assessment, a topic on which I have been espousing ASCL policy for many years.
Few policy areas are in so much need of change than assessment. With the cost of examinations spiralling out of control, the number of tests and examinations taken by young people far higher than in other countries, and external results used for so many ends that they are no longer fit for purpose, reform must be on the agenda.
ASCL's policy of introducing chartered assessors - senior professionals externally accredited to carry out in-course assessment to external standards - was adopted as a recommendation in the Tomlinson report, but turned down by Ruth Kelly and the Prime Minister. We shall continue to press for this reform, alongside the rest of our wish list to make assessment better for young people, better for teachers and better for schools and colleges.
Few other organisations can claim to be as influential as ASCL, both reactively and pro-actively. That is an important part of the reason why you pay your subscription - and why you are, I hope, pleased to be part of wider ASCL team whose views carry weight across the system.
John Dunford is ASCL General Secetary
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