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'Politicians should work with the teaching profession to develop a long-term vision for education'

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

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” This quote from Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, sums up neatly why having a world-class education that enables all young people to succeed must be a top national priority. And yet what we currently have is an education system that is subject to the whims of successive governments, without a long-term of vision of where we want to be.

Undoubtedly, the core purpose of education must be to develop in our young people the skills, qualities, knowledge and qualifications that will prepare them for work and life in the broadest sense. The countries with the most successful education systems have a clear vision and direction that is widely understood. We need a commitment from all political parties to develop with the profession a long-term, shared vision for education.

So what do we need our politicians to do? I’d like to see our politicians (whatever their political affiliation) commit to three things:

1.       Distribute funding equitably and according to need

Last week, the Department for Education announced a £350 million increase in the education budget, but school budgets on the whole will be no better off because the Treasury has landed schools and colleges with a 2.3 per cent increase in pension contributions. Many schools and colleges in lower-funded areas are seeing a rapidly-approaching point beyond which they will no longer be able to balance budgets – in many cases, this will occur in 2015-16.  Moreover, funding for post-16 students is now almost at crisis point, especially in small school sixth forms and in sixth-form colleges. We need political commitment that funding is distributed equitably and according to need, in both pre- and post-16 education. Funding must be at an appropriate level to compete with the best education systems in the world and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

2.       Create a proper balance between autonomy and accountability

I recognise the need, in a largely autonomous education landscape, for strong and intelligent public accountability. ASCL has been critical of some aspects of the way Ofsted operates and the distorting effect it has on the balance of autonomy and accountability. It is time for Ofsted to change. We need inspection that is credible, consistent, impartial and has the confidence of the profession. We cannot have freedoms given on the one hand, and taken away via the accountability regime on the other, including the fear of Ofsted. We need a proper balance between autonomy and accountability.

3.       Develop a coherent qualifications structure which is trusted and valued

A profile last week of Michael Gove’s achievements suggested that the government may have bitten off more that it could chew on qualifications reform. We may be at risk of chronic indigestion as a result. I believe we need a coherent qualification structure that is trusted and valued by all and is not constantly changing. However, I am also mindful of disparities between academic and vocational qualifications. The key to further qualifications reform is a clear vision with a carefully thought-out implementation plan.

At ASCL’s conference at the end of this week, we will launch our manifesto. Ahead of the election in May 2015, we need to think imaginatively and intelligently about how to ensure that our education system is fit for purpose and that our young people thrive now, and in the future.

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