SIX hundred heads participated in the launch of the National College for School Leadership last week. This is the third conference the Government has organised for newly-appointed heads but such is the pace of change these days that the press already describes this as "a tradition".
At each of the events, I've stood at the doors as participants left to gauge the mood. One participant who commented:"The inspiration will last a lot longer than one day" seemed to capture the spirit of the event.
Prime Minister Tony Blair and David Blunkett, Education Secretary, set the tone making brief speeches and answering questions. Participants were warmed, no doubt, by the Prime Minister's promise to continue prioritising investment in education throughout the next Parliament (if he's re-elected). But perhaps even more important was the emphasis the politicians placed on building a deeper, stronger partnership between heads and the Government. Now that around 85 per cent of cash is delegated to heads, school leadership is the central issue. The Government's role at its simplest is to enable heads and teachers to do their job well. Heather Du Quesnay, the new director of the NCSL, introduced a vision. She promised a college which would enable leaders to learn from their peers in education and elsewhere. The range of activities, whether real or virtual, would provide opportunities for existing or potential school leaders.
The rest of the day was devoted to interactive discussion between participants and the Government about the strategic challenges for our education service. Participants could vote using keypad technology and could see the outcomes of their votes rather more rapidly than the voters of Florida.
Voting on current policy, they welcomed additional funding and delegation; they were positive about the literacy and numeracy strategies but, most of all, they liked target-setting. In the discussion that followed, heads pointed out the immense benefits of each pupil having challenging and achievable targets for the next half-term.
They suggested that this was powering the literacy and numeracy strategies at primary level, contributing to progress at secndary level and building on a longer experience of target-setting in special schools. The conversation moved on to longer-term challenges. There was strong agreement that a high priority must be given to "seeing things through". What had been started should be finished: whether it was literacy and numeracy at primary level or standards at key stage 3, everyone wants the Government to sustain its priorities and invest in them for several years.
The other major challenges for the years ahead are beginning to emerge. There is a strong belief among headteachers that narrowing the achievement gap (between advantaged and disadvantaged areas and groups) ought to be emphasised. Similarly, people want to see, in addition to rising academic standards, a stronger emphasis on creativity, reasoning and values; what Gandhi called "Education with Character".
The top priority for participants was the need for a radical re-think of the teaching profession itself, not merely to solve the challenge of teacher recruitment and retention but also to prepare for the learning society. The Green Paper reforms, people believed, had not gone far enough. There was recognition that the status of the teaching profession needed more attention and that the GTC was an important advance. New combinations of teachers, other staff and technology could dramatically enhance teaching and learning in the next few years by enabling teachers to focus on their central pedagogical tasks.
And in the face of these immense challenges were people demoralised? Far from it. A remarkable 90 per cent declared themselves either "quite" or "very" optimistic about the future. When I left the new heads' conference last week, I had a powerful sense of an education service on the brink of something truly remarkable. I'm sometimes accused of being over-optimistic and sometimes I am guilty. This time, though, I shall refer any doubters to the 600 people who were there.
Those who would like to debate this further should log on to the Learning from Success website: http:www.standards.dfee.gov.uklearningfromsuccess
Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit.