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.

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