The political party conference season is well underway and the NAHT headteachers’ union finds itself in Liverpool this week and in Birmingham next week, talking with both Labour and the Conservatives about the future of education.
At both conferences, we are talking about accountability, in partnership with Tes.
In Liverpool, where Labour’s vision is all about a new National Education Service, we have been making the case for an accountability system that meets the needs of pupils, their families and the wider world.
All too often, school leaders feel that the system works against them – that doing the right thing by their pupils is the wrong thing when league tables and performance data are concerned.
Our new report, Improving School Accountability, which has been much discussed at the Labour conference, asserts that the current system deters talented staff from working in more deprived communities. This happens because they do not believe they will be treated fairly by the inspectorate or performance tables.
Often, an inspection judgement can be a reflection of the area that a school serves, as much as the quality of education provided within it.
The truth is, we have moved beyond the need to police the system. Eight out of 10 schools are now rated good or outstanding.
As NAHT deputy general secretary Nick Brook, the chair of our commission on accountability, has said, the system we’ve had for the past 25 years won’t serve us well for the next 25 if it continues with the high-stakes, low-trust model that we’ve become used to.
So it's good news that the secretary of state has clarified a few things, including that a "requires improvement" judgement should be the trigger for support rather than sanction, and that the duplication of focus between Ofsted and regional schools commissioners is to come to an end.
It’s also good news that Ofsted is working on a new inspection framework. Schools need to be inspected. Children only get one chance at education and the stakes are too high not to inspect.
What concerns us at the NAHT is that Ofsted’s new framework is due to be implemented in less than 12 months and it has not left itself enough time to introduce change of the magnitude suggested by recent reports. There’s a risk that not all schools will understand it and not all inspectors will apply it consistently.
So we’ve called for a pause, at least until the details can be shared and discussed with the profession.
Credit where it's due, Ofsted did engage with our commission. What we’d like to see now is for it to adopt some of the nine recommendations in our report and include them in its upcoming consultation.
Some transparency here would really help to convince school leaders that the next inspection framework will be fair.
Without this, there’s a danger that the new framework will be implemented, not with a consultation that achieves some buy-in, but a notification that will foster more fear and resentment.
That’s the old way of doing things. The old way did not work.
As chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said, battle language won’t get us anywhere.
And as I have often repeated, the language of victory and defeat is out of date. You won’t find the NAHT using it. Anywhere.
There are many who say that we should get politics out of education. But I’m a realist and I know that while we work in a publicly funded system, the stakes are too high to eradicate political interference entirely.
There are many in government who believe that school leaders should not talk about the pressures in schools right now. But, if not us, then who?
It's the NAHT’s 28,000 members who have been central to the successes of recent years and it's their duty to speak truth to power when things are going wrong.
We are a strong community of leaders, making our voices heard at the highest level. We are a modern trade union, speaking responsibly about the issues that matter most. And nothing is more important than making sure the system that we are building works for leaders and learners, whatever their politics, whatever their circumstances and wherever they work or study.
Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT. He tweets @PaulWhiteman6