Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Time for change

The launch of the DCSF Children's Plan could signal a return to core values, says Brian Lightman. 

During the short period since September I have already travelled more than 10,000 miles around the UK representing ASCL.

Wherever I go, it seems, the UNICEF report on the well-being of children and similar surveys on happiness appear frequently in conversations or speeches. The fact that Britain is at the bottom of this particular league table is a matter of unanimous concern.

That concern has been consistently reflected in surveys which continue to identify emotional health issues as one of the major concerns of school leaders. At its annual conference in October HMC bravely took on the topic of mental health and substance abuse in an open and frank debate which rightly recognised that these problems do not distinguish on grounds of class.

When I became a head, the first thing I did was to initiate a debate involving the whole school and wider community about our ethos and values. It seemed the obvious place to start if we were to improve the quality of education. I remember being astonished when a senior colleague told me how much he was enjoying it - it had never been done during his many years of excellent service.

Having initially wondered about the purposes of the split of the DfES, I wonder whether we are experiencing a similar return to first principles?

The DCSF has been undertaking a consultation exercise 'Time to Talk' in preparation for launching an ambitious new Children's Plan in December which will cover the totality of childhood and the range of children's services. Unlike other consultations, this exercise has been much more open ended, inviting responses to a number of wide-ranging questions.

Such an overdue return to the core purposes of ASCL members' work is to be warmly welcomed. It would seem that our concerns about the obvious tensions between the standards and Every Child Matters agendas have been recognised and that a robust debate is underway.

As always ASCL is being proactive in this process. We know that education is about much more than passing tests and that the values our schools and colleges hold are sometimes one of the few constants in a child's life.

We know that space has to be created for processes as well outcomes and for young people to be creative and reflective. We know that an overloaded curriculum, targets and the current testing regime work against these interests. There are some easy wins for government if they have the courage to tackle these issues.

For all of these reasons we have made a central part of our submission a paper on the values of education.

Having been a school leader for many years I find it very welcome, but also rather unsettling, to hear in major policy speeches the kind of things that are said in assembly week in week out across the country.

Whilst ASCL members cannot be expected to solve the ills of society single handed, the Government is correct that it is time to talk about controversial and complex issues such as the commercialisation of childhood, the effect of marriage breakdown, the less deferential society and the role of parents.

We know that some big questions have to be asked. As with all debates that seek to change society for the better, some of this will be uncomfortable and challenging. But we certainly agree it is time to talk and look forward to the conversation. ASCL and its members have a big part to play in this.

ASCL's response to Time to Talk can be viewed at www.ascl.org.uk in the members' area under consultations.

Brian Lightman

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