The power to transform

New leadership reforms are 'heady stuff' which are set to irrevocably alter secondary education, says David Hart

The Chancellor's comprehensive spending review statement may have achieved all the front-page headlines over the summer, but of equal long-term significance will be the Government's Investment for Reform programme, announced the following day, and the remit to the School Teachers' Review Body, issued two weeks later.

The review body is told that it must have regard to the need for more transformational leadership in schools: heads and other senior staff with high expectations, pioneering ambitions, innovative ideas for raising standards, making the most of new freedoms, committed to remodelling school staffing, time and space and influential beyond their own school. The programme states: "For too long, heads had neither the power nor the resources to really make their schools special. The system provided insufficient incentives and scope for diversity and excellence in schools."

There will be those who regard these developments as an attempt to abolish the comprehensive system by the back door, or as vague aspirations that excite "the chattering classes" but which will never see the light of day. I believe such critics are fundamentally mistaken. The reform programme is a powerful agenda that seeks to transform secondary education. Of course, there are bound to be concerns with such radical proposals. In particular, there is a danger that the primary sector will be undervalued. Many of the qualities of leadership, highlighted as necessary for secondary schools, are equally applicable to primary and special-school leaders. They are just as entitled to the training and support, and to the innovation, autonomy and freedom, outlined in the reforms.

But it is in secondary schools that the greatest change will take place. The vision is one of powerful and effective leaders, backed by new resources and incentives for success, achieving new levels of diversity and excellence. Specialisation will go hand in hand with collaboration. Teachers will lead expanded teams of support staff under the workload reduction agenda. They will be supported by the National College for School Leadership, with the transformation of school leadership as a core programme. This autumn there will be a comprehensive package that pulls together all the current strategies to improve pupil behaviour.

This is all "heady stuff". So challenging that those of a cynical disposition might be tempted to dismiss it as a programme designed primarily for external public consumption. But that would be a very unwise conclusion to draw, because it ignores both the major levers and incentives in the reforms. These include a big increase in the Government's school standards fund, tied to remodelling the school workforce. This will put pressure on all parties, including the Government, to reach an acceptable agreement on workload reduction by the end of this year. There will be a major drive on specialisation, with new academies, several hundred advanced schools and many more specialist schools. The expansion of successful schools, and the ability to create new federations of schools, will present substantial opportunities for heads. But, most important of all, there will be the Leadership Incentive Grant, given to schools in challenging areas. This is a significant injection of cash, designed to drive up standards in many deprived communities.

Areas for debate remain, however:

* National standards and accountabilities will provoke fresh argument about target-setting and the shape of league tables;

* Devolution and delegation to the front line will test the new funding system to the limit. Money in baseline budgets is the criteria by which many heads will judge the comprehensive spending review;

* Expanding choice must not undermine the need to ensure fairness, via the admissions process, for every pupil;

* Workload reduction measures will not be easy to agree. It is not just about guaranteed preparation time and additional support staff. School leaders will require more management time. Bureaucracy must be cut;

* The remit to the review body raises some controversial issues. An extension of performance-related pay, the introduction of bonuses and the trend towards more flexibility, have to be measured against the prime need to operate a pay structure that recruits, retains and motivates.

But none of these key issues alters the fact that we need to build upon the very considerable successes already achieved by school leaders and staff. The challenge to transform the educational landscape should not cause surprise. The National Association of Head Teachers, amongst others, has already embarked upon discussions about the "school of the future". The quality of school leadership, nursery, primary, special and secondary, has improved greatly during the past decade or more. We have the best generation of school leaders the education service has seen. I, for one, believe that they are more than capable of bringing about the transformation anticipated by Investment for Reform. Certainly the NAHT, which represents the vast majority of all school leaders, will wish to play a prime role in an agenda designed to shape the future of education in this country.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you