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'It is now time for the profession to take charge'

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:

While the direction of travel over three decades has been towards greater school autonomy, it has been a bumpy ride. Not only are we "not there yet", there are a range of views about where we should be going and what route we take.

Much has been said and written, even in the four years since David Hargreaves published the first of his influential think pieces on a self-improving system. Coalition policies have centred around delivering a self-improving system through the concept of system leadership, including teaching schools and national and local leaders of education.

The common understanding of system leadership has been of leaders who build leadership capacity within their own school at the same time as working with and supporting other schools in their localities.

I believe that up until now we have been dabbling in system leadership. It is now time for the profession to take charge as we move into the next phase. The (former) National College for School Leadership defined system leadership as "educational leadership", rather than "institutional leadership". Educational leadership includes but should not be limited by locality or groups of schools. The next phase in system leadership is leadership of the education system itself.

The McKinsey report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, says the "good" to "great" journey marks the point at which the school system comes to largely rely upon the values and behaviours of its educators – its teachers and school leaders - to propel continuing improvement. And the "great" to "excellent" journey moves the locus of improvement from central government to schools themselves.

The next phase in system leadership is to define, once and for all, what a self-improving system looks like, and then move irrevocably towards it. This is why the Association of School and College Leaders is launching an ambitious project to create a blueprint for a self-improving system.

Let me make clear: a self-improving system is different from a school-led system. It is possible that a school-led system is not an improving one. However, a self-improving system is by definition school-led, with the government legitimately responsible for determining the standards framework for accountability purposes.

As we take this significant step towards clarifying and defining a self-improving system, it is important that we give careful consideration to the constraints that work against it. A question many school leaders may ask is whether Ofsted, in particular, is contributing to or hindering the further development of a school-led system. As part of our project, we will need to consider what accountability – both inspection and performance measures – look like in a self-improving system.

There is also the pressure to manage very significant changes in curriculum, assessment and qualifications. All of this is taking place in a cash-flat environment with cost pressures mounting year on year.

Education will always be a political priority if only because of the amount of public money expended on it. However, I propose that there may be a more strategic, less operational, role for government – specifically to remove obstacles and create the conditions for a self-improving system. And this will need to involve a commitment from politicians to re-calibrate their relationship with the profession and vacate some space to allow the next stage in a self-improving, school-led system to emerge. 

We want to invite the profession to respond to a series of questions that will help us develop a blue print for a self-improving system.

Getting the vision right

  1. If we had a self-improving system in place, what would it look like? What would its key components be?
  2. What is the role of government in a self-improving system?
  3. What do regulation and accountability look like in a self-improving system?
  4. What are the system capacity and/or capability challenges in taking a self-improving system forward?
  5. How do we build collective momentum and unlock capacity?

Putting it into practice

  1. How does the system organise itself to co-ordinate local system leadership roles e.g. teaching schools, national leaders of education, local leaders of education, collaboration and school-to-school support?
  2. What does the pathway from initial teacher education through to leadership look like in a self-improving system
  3. How are curriculum and qualifications determined in a self-improving system – what is the role for government and what is the role for the profession in determining curriculum and qualifications?
  4. What structural forms are needed in a self-improving system?
  5. In a self-improving system, what is the role for middle tier bodies?

If you would like to make a contribution, please send your responses to

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