Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

A man on a mission

Starry sky

Gordon Brown has set out his priorities for education and they come with a daunting string of proposals attached. While it is hard to disagree with the aspiration driving them, says John Dunford, the devil will be in the implementation.

Gordon Brown's first education speech since becoming prime minister was high on aspiration, long on proposals and hard on failure. His first cabinet has two education secretaries. His first Queen's Speech contained two education bills. There can be little doubt that education is a high priority.

Gordon Brown speaks of education as important in itself, but also as the best pathway out of disadvantage. For the country, he emphasises the importance of equipping young people with skills so that Britain can compete internationally.

This was confirmed in his speech in late October at the University of Greenwich in which he set out his belief that "each young person has the talent and potential, each has some gift to develop, each something to give to the good of the community".

The prime minister returned to the theme of raising aspirations as well as achievement, which had featured in his previous education speeches: "The greater failure is not the child who doesn't reach for the stars, but the child who has got no stars that they feel they are reaching for."

But, he concluded: "Education has always been about more than exams, more than the basics, vital as they are. To educate is to form character, shape values, liberate the imagination; it is to pass human wisdom, knowledge and ingenuity from one generation to the next; it is a duty and a calling.

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled; it is a fire to be kindled. Education is the greatest liberator and the greatest force for social progress."

He ended, "I ask all of you to enlist in this cause."

These are aspirations with which most ASCL members will identify, being closely aligned with the moral purpose of teaching and school leadership.

Policies aplenty

Government ministers' aspirations form a basis for their policies and it is through those that we - and the general public - assess them. The prime minister certainly had plenty of policies in his Greenwich speech (see summary in box) and therein could lie the seeds of future problems. Schools and colleges are already punch-drunk with the number of policies introduced in the last ten years.

On closer examination, however, many of Gordon Brown's policies are not new. For instance, most schools are increasingly finding ways of engaging better with parents and listening to the student voice on a wide range of issues.

'Leave no child behind' is a way of describing the catch-up classes that the government has been encouraging schools to hold for those with lower levels of attainment.

In the United States, where this aphorism has been adopted as George Bush's education policy aim, it is said that the result has been to 'leave no child untested'. That must not happen here, where ASCL and many others are urging for a major review of assessment.

It was therefore as welcome as it was surprising to hear the prime minister say that "we must keep assessment under review to ensure it supports learning and achievement and does not dominate teaching." Three cheers for that!

It was equally welcome to hear that there would be "more support for innovative teaching and learning strategies". The Key Stage 3 review has shown the way here. Now the accountability framework has to follow suit and help school leaders to be less risk averse.

The wrong target

The part of speech picked out by the media was the plan for "ever tougher measures for eradicating failure" by closing or amalgamating the 670 schools with less than 30 per cent of students with less than five A* to C GCSE passes including maths and English (or equivalent) if they have not reached that target by 2012.

The very next sentence of the speech illustrated why this is the wrong target - as ASCL said strongly at the time, such floor targets as misguided and damaging.

The prime minister said that many of these schools "are already improving, many have strong and determined leaders, many face the toughest challenges in our education system." So why close or amalgamate them, ASCL asks.

ASCL has been saying for some time that there needs to be a better balance of pressure and support for schools serving challenging communities. So it was good to hear the prime minister say that "we have to use the right mix of intervention and support to raise standards."

Diplomas form a major part of the government's plans. The decision to have three new diplomas - in sciences, humanities and languages - radically alters the landscape. It does not quite produce the full Tomlinson recipe, but nearly, and is a major step towards the unified, coherent post-14 qualifications system for which this association has campaigned for nearly 20 years.

There is now a much greater chance that the diplomas will not be seen as second-class qualifications. Already, Cambridge University is saying that the maths in the engineering diploma - and the same is likely to be true for the sciences diploma - will make a better preparation for university engineering and science courses than single maths A level.

This concentration on advanced diplomas must not mask the importance of Level 1 and 2 diplomas and the fear that they are too academic with not enough hands-on and vocational elements to attract and engage their potential students. Many ASCL members are concerned that diplomas will not succeed unless there is a change of emphasis.

The prime minister spoke of schools "increasingly operating as networks" and the forthcoming report by Robert Hill for ASCL will set out very clearly the conditions necessary for these networks to flourish.

Out with the old

There is much to commend in Gordon Brown's education programme. There is a lot of ground clearing to be done, though, if it is to come to fruition.

Some of the policies remaining from the era of competition, such as misleading national league tables of the performance of individual schools, an overblown testing and examinations system, and an instrumentalist approach to learning, will surely block Gordon Brown's aspirations as much as they undermine some of our best efforts.

Funding is still an issue and nowhere is this more true than in the delivery of the diplomas. Secondary schools and colleges will need the sort of injection of funds that primary schools had for the start of planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time.

The biggest impediment to progress in the most important policy areas has often been the sheer number of initiatives that schools and colleges are forced to implement simultaneously. I shall continue to warn Gordon Brown and Ed Balls of the need for self-discipline in policy making and a clear message conveyed about the order of priorities.

With the threats of school closure, the famous clunking fist is there for all to see, but the fist is full of proposals, many of merit, and ASCL looks forward to influencing the way that schools and colleges are asked to implement them.

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Key points from Gordon Brown's speech

Main education policies

  • Engage parents more

  • Regular real-time feedback to parents on student progress

  • Regular emails and meetings

  • More parent sessions at school to share information and set goals at key transition points

Personalised learning

  • New vision of diplomas

  • Expand the gifted and talented programme

Increase applications to university from schools in disadvantaged areas

  • Increase the number of student ambassadors from universities

  • Build on Aim Higher programme

  • Raise the status and standards of teaching

Raise the quality of recruits into teacher training

  • Expand Teach First

  • Create Teach Next for mid-career entrants

  • Promote graduate opportunities for CPD linked to performance assessment

150 more academies in the next three years

  • More universities setting up academies

  • More local authorities putting academies at the heart of their plans

All pupils making good progress

  • Setting by ability and stronger classroom discipline

  • More one-to-one tuition and small group teaching

  • A personal studies tutor for each student

An end to failure

  • Narrow the social gap in attainment

  • Better school-based social and behavioural support for children with extra needs

  • New minimum threshold of 30 per cent with five A*-C GCSE grades, including maths and English

  • Annual improvement targets for schools below threshold

  • New incentives for the best teachers to work in the toughest schools

  • Interim executive boards to take over school management where there is failure

  • Closure or federation of schools not improving

More support for innovative teaching and learning strategies

  • Schools increasingly working as networks

  • Improvement networks run by schools for schools

  • Keep assessment under review to ensure it supports learning and achievement and does not dominate teaching

Raise participation age to 18

Radical overhaul of apprenticeships

  • 3,000 training credit or advanced apprentices

  • A UCAS-style matching service for potential apprentices with businesses

  • More employers, especially in the public sector, offering apprenticeships

  • Legal duty on LSC to ensure sufficient apprenticeship places in all areas

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