John Dunford’s Election Blog – 30th April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The third of the leaders’ debates concluded with a good question from Michael Crowhurst, a teacher in a deprived area of Birmingham who wanted to know how the parties would create opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The first debate had included a question from a 17 year old on whether the examination and testing system stifled creativity in schools. Two good questions.

I cannot recall a time when all three major party leaders had young children in state schools, so their commitment to the state system is evident – a contrast from 1979 when Mark Carlisle was secretary of state for education. He later commented that he could not understand why he had been appointed to the post as neither he nor his children had had any experience of state education.

In the time available the party leaders’ answers did little more than scratch the surface of the link between inequality and educational achievement.

Nick Clegg emphasised the LibDem’s pupil premium, targeted at schools with disadvantaged pupils, which would enable schools to reduce class sizes and/or provide one-to-one tuition. He was clear about the priority that needed to be given to support for these children in the early years of education. He also linked his party’s policy on raising the tax threshold to £10,000 to the relieving of poverty.

David Cameron paid a compliment to teachers who ’perform the most incredibly important work in society’ and said that ‘we should do more to support them’. He wanted to strengthen heads’ powers on discipline by abolishing appeals panels and making searching easier. ASCL disagrees with the abolition of appeals panels on the grounds that heads will then have to waste a lot of time and energy in being taken to judicial review in the high court by litigious parents.

David Cameron also emphasised his policy for a greater variety of schools and more academies, but he didn’t mention the party’s policy on a pupil premium, which the other parties accuse him of not knowing how to pay for. Presumably this would be partly funded by the removal of what he described as ‘a lot of waste’ in quangos and in the thousands of pages of regulations and guidance emerging every year from the government. (NB The contemplation room in the DCSF, to which he referred as an example of waste, is, I think, the Muslim prayer room.)

Gordon Brown spoke about child tax credits, which the other parties would scale down, and emphasised his commitment to social mobility, citing one-to-one tuition, Sure Start and the encouragement to more young people to stay in full-time education. He referred briefly to good schools taking over under-performing ones, but failed to set out the immense achievements of the education service during the last 13 years, many of them trying to break the link between poverty and under-achievement – greatly improved exam results, massive support for schools in challenging areas, many fewer schools with less than 30 per cent achieving five high grade GCSEs including English and maths (or equivalent), a big increase in the numbers staying on beyond 16, the raising of the participation age, schools working closely in partnership to the benefit of all in their area, reformed and updated qualifications, healthy food, more sport, better safeguarding, and so on.

Instead, David Cameron was allowed to get away with the statement that there had been ‘13 years of quite a lot of educational failure’. There is still failure in the system, but the successes have surely outweighed the failures.

I still find it hard to understand why the Conservative party, as David Cameron said again last night, trumpets the advantages of greater freedom for schools in one breath, and in the next breath tells schools to teach reading using synthetic phonics and to set pupils by ability. Apart from the inherent contradiction here, I cannot think of any other public service in which a party leader would be so prescriptive about what professionals should do. Politicians don’t tell surgeons how to hold a scalpel, so why do they think it is ok to tell teachers how to teach or heads how to organise their school?

All three party leaders stated that they would protect the schools’ (but not the colleges’ or universities’) budget and that public sector pay would have to be limited.

I was left feeling that the questions had been better than the answers.

John Dunford’s election blog, 29 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The leaders’ debates are compelling and I am greatly looking forward to tonight’s debate. I watched the first debate and, not having Sky, listened to the second debate on Radio4. In some ways, I preferred the radio, which had none of the distraction of watching the facial expressions and being influenced by how the leaders stood and how relaxed they looked. On the radio, the policies seemed to come across more clearly. Nonetheless, I shall be watching tonight to see who wins – and in particular to hear about the effect of spending cuts on public services.

While the debates have engaged more people in the election and have given extra exposure to the Liberal Democrats, thus moving away from the old one-two bang-bash politics, they have personalised the election into a presidential beauty parade to the extent that, for almost the whole of the first half of the election campaign, policies were barely discussed. It was all about Nick, Gordon and David.

So little has been the exposure of other leading politicians that most electors would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of members of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat front benches.

That is the way that the media is reporting the election and it is similar with schools and colleges. The media always focuses on principals and heads (still, alas, ‘headmasters’ in some cases) and shows as little recognition of the team leadership of schools as of the government. Britain’s Got Talent politics is as flawed an image as X-factor school leadership.

Does it matter, provided that the reality has moved away from the autocrat hero-head model to the distributed leadership that exists in schools and colleges? Well, yes it does, because the media is not presenting schools as they really are. The National College is consistent in its message that the leadership of the head or principal is vital, but the school/college can only be successful if the team around the principal works well.

So let’s hear more from the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem leadership teams. It’s vitally important who is the prime minister, but Britain will only have good government if the whole leadership team works well.

John Dunford’s election blog – 28 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

So Britain’s ‘leading economics think tank’, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has accused all three of the main political parties of failing to come clean over the extent of public sector cuts after the election. As I have done on behalf of ASCL in relation to education funding, Robert Chote of the IFS has called on the three parties to clarify what cuts will be made across the board.

So the days of plenty for schools are nearly over. And, in comparison to the past and (so it appears) the future, the last 10 years or so have indeed been a time of plenty. I reflected on this as I visited a school this morning – St Catherine’s RC School for Girls in Bexley – and compared the facilities there now with those that were commonplace at the end of the 20th century. It wasn’t so much the buildings and grounds – greatly enhanced by the complete absence of litter – but the equipment throughout the school that struck me as so different. Whiteboards, ceiling mounted projectors, sports equipment, computers – and specialist music equipment that, as an ex-record producer member of staff said to me, would only have been seen in commercial studios a decade ago.

What can we expect in the future? Cuts in capital budgets have already been factored in, although over half of these are labelled ‘efficiency savings’. Does this mean that Building Schools for the Future (BSF) will be safe, with only reduced costs of administration of the projects? And will it be the BSF budget that is raided if the Conservatives win and are looking for funds to build their small parent-run schools?

Labour has told us that they will protect school budgets, but this is dependent on ‘efficiency savings’ which many school leaders regard as a euphemism for ‘cuts’.

The Liberal Democrats have promised to introduce a pupil premium, which ASCL strongly welcomes, to support the education of disadvantaged children, and they have identified the funding that will be transferred from non-school budgets for this. However, the need to identify many billions more of savings, as the IFS suggests, may curb LibDem ambitions here.

The pupil premium is also supported by the Conservatives, although they have not said where the money is coming from, and a version of the same policy is implicit in Labour’s plans to introduce fairer, better targeted funding for disadvantage.

Much as ASCL would like to see a national funding entitlement with a premium for disadvantage – and we have argued for it for many years – it will be very difficult to introduce at a time of declining national funding. Tomorrow’s leaders’ debate, which is on the economy, must clarify all this. School and college leaders are optimists by nature and so we should also note that, at the same time as we are absorbing the gloom of the IFS report, we learn of the greatly increased value of the 41 per cent public owned Lloyds Banking Group. This suggests that, if the government holds its nerve and sells Lloyds back to the private sector at the right moment, the problem gap in the public finances will be reduced by many billions. We must fervently hope so.

John Dunford’s election blog – 27 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

Today’s letter to the Daily Telegraph from 31 heads and governors welcoming the freedoms being offered to high-performing schools in the Conservative manifesto raises some fundamental issues that need to be addressed in the election campaign. Yes, there is far too much bureaucracy and central government regulation on schools. But care must be taken not to over-react and create a system with too much freedom, in which some schools will inevitably suffer and the system as a whole 9and the young people in it) will polarise into the haves and the have-nots.

As I said to ASCL annual conference in March 2010:

Do not over-regulate us, but put in place only enough regulation to ensure that one school’s success is not at the expense of another. In the 1980s and 1990s we were encouraged as school leaders to rejoice at the misfortunes of the school down the road because it would increase our intake numbers. Now, when a school nearby is in trouble, ASCL members pick up the phone and say ‘How can I help?’ Government must support that collegiality. This is symptomatic of a change from the culture of competition that existed during my period of headship to the culture of collaboration and partnership that exists now in most places.

The extent of partnership working means that we have reached the stage where all school and college leaders are now co-leaders of education in their area.

Appointment procedures, accountability and funding mechanisms may still focus entirely on the single school, but the reality is different and it is time that these systems caught up. We want to see the new government build on this collaborative culture. We do not want to return to bad old days of dog-eat-dog policies in the false belief that a good dose of the market will improve standards.

This represents a challenge as much to ASCL members as to the government. The siren voice of isolationism may be about to seduce you away from collaboration and partnership and it will be a challenge to maintain the current impetus towards partnership working, firmly rooted in the moral purpose of improving the life chances of all young people in the area. It will be the disadvantaged who suffer if the school system splits into 20,000 autonomous units – a corner shop version of the education service and not one that this association supports. …

Equally, we want to move away from the excessive amount of education regulation and legislation that demonstrate a lack of trust in school leaders. It seems that if it’s not compulsory, it’s forbidden; and if it’s not forbidden, it’s compulsory. The use of regulation has long been in overdrive, promoting tick-box compliance, reducing flexibility and betraying lack of trust. So the restoration of trust in school leaders is at the top of our wish list from the government that will shortly be elected.

David Puttnam will tell you how he built a pyramid of trust right down through his Oscar winning team, epitomised by giving new alarm clocks to the drivers whose job was to get the actors to the set on time. Clive Woodward created the same trust right through his World Cup winning rugby team and its support staff. Great leaders do the same in their schools, through to the cleaners and catering staff. So it should be with the secretary of state as leader of the England education team.

Trust us and we will pass that trust down the line to create a truly great education system and, like Puttnam’s film crews, we will all have the Oscar on our cv. Fail to trust us, over-regulate us, make us over-accountable and some of the mistrust and fear will inevitably find its way down the line to teachers and support staff, and then to the students themselves. Let the principle of subsidiarity be applied to the governance of education, with power passed to the lowest level consistent with the public good.

John Dunford’s election blog – 26 April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

I have tried to keep quiet during the election campaign and let the parties fight it out on the basis of their manifestos. If asked to comment, I refer journalists to the ASCL election manifesto – our proactive view of what should happen to education policy after 6 May. In that way, ASCL maintains its independence of all political parties.

The public relies on politicians to put their case clearly and on journalists to question party front-benchers on all aspects of policy. However, the sparring match between John Humphrys and Michael Gove this morning on the Today programme on the funding of the Conservatives’ parent-run schools was just that – a sparring match, with no light being shed on the central issues.

Mike Baker has tried to explain the complications of the political parties’ claims on school funding in http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8641073.stm.

But the questions that John Humphrys failed to ask, and Michael Gove did not have the opportunity to answer, are not the extent to which Paul Carter of Kent LA supports Tory policy or not. They are these:

(a) What will be the effect on other state schools of funding lots of parent-run small schools, which will inevitably have diseconomies of scale?
(b) Will local authorities be expected to continue to have functions, such as admissions and SEN, and how will they be paid to perform them? and
(c) If there are many parent-run schools and lots more academies, funded outside the local authority system, will that mean that the local authorities receive less money to do the same job?

So we need clarity from the Conservatives on the detail of how schools – parent-run, academies, local authority community schools – will be funded equitably and similar clarity on what they see as the role of local authorities and how that will be funded. And, because the quantum of future funding is giving such anxiety to school and college leaders, we need clarity from all political parties on exactly what will, and what will not, be cut from the schools’ and colleges’ budget. Efficiency savings and cutting quangos won’t do it alone.