'By doing away with the National College, school leaders' influence on education policy is being minimised'

15th November 2017 at 13:00
By abolishing the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the DfE is getting rid of their most experienced advisers on matters of school leadership, writes a former leader of ASCL

The announcement that the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) is to be absorbed into the Department for Education, which is to take over teacher recruitment functions from the college, is the latest twist in a shocking sequence of policy decisions made by education ministers.

The way in which the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) has been reduced from a forward-looking leadership college, with a strong international reputation, to an arm of government is matched only in its crassness by the abolition of the Teacher Development Agency (TDA), which ran some very successful teacher recruitment campaigns.

As general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders before 2010, I met frequently with Michael Gove – then opposition spokesman on education – and said to him on almost every occasion: "If you are going to give more autonomy to schools, then the quality of school leadership must be at the top of your priorities. With Steve Munby as chief executive, the NCSL is doing an excellent job. Give it your support."

Furthermore, I said to him: "Your government may be planning to abolish lots of quangos, but you have no plans to abolish Sandhurst for army leaders, so don’t abolish NSCL for school leaders."

And I pointed out to him that the NCSL and TDA were very different organisations, doing different jobs, so it would be very unwise to amalgamate them.

Most important of all, I encouraged the future secretary of state to remember that school leaders highly valued the work of the national college and felt a degree of ownership of it as "their" college. Any move to take away the independent status of the college and make it into an agency of the department would instantly lose that sense of professional ownership.

National College changes

These conversations must rank as one of my least successful lobbying efforts as ASCL general secretary. First, NCSL and TDA were made agencies of the department, then they were amalgamated, and then a chief executive with very little understanding of school leadership was appointed to lead the merged organisation. The gradual dismembering of NCSL and TDA has continued, with the announcement of the department taking over teacher recruitment and the apparent disappearance of the body’s school leadership role being the final nails in the coffin.

Roger Pope has done an almost impossible job well as chair of NCTL within the department, but that job will now be even more difficult for a school leader when the rest of the organisation is the direct responsibility of ministers and civil servants. 

It is a mystery why government ministers think that things will be done better by bringing them in-house to Sanctuary buildings. Yes, they will be more under ministerial control, but that means ministers have nobody else to blame when things go wrong. And by losing the expertise of the many school leaders who held senior posts in the college, ministers are dispensing with their most experienced advisers on matters of school leadership.

It was a proud day for the profession in October 2002 when prime minister Tony Blair and secretary of state Estelle Morris came to Nottingham to open the imposing new national college building, designed by Sir Michael Hopkins and symbolising its independence by its situation on the Jubilee Campus of the University of Nottingham. Now, that pride has disappeared and the building is used by a hotel group and called the De Vere Jubilee Conference Centre. The descent of the college into the bowels of the department is a sad day for school leadership, for the influence of school leaders on education policy and for the governance of education in England.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey, was published in 2016. He tweets as @johndunford 

For more Tes columns by John, visit his back-catalogue.

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