Ed secs? I've known a few ..

9th July 2010 at 01:00
Outgoing ASCL general secretary John Dunford has relished his 12 years at the top. As he bows out on the brink of the biggest education upheaval in a generation, he tells Irena Barker of his unease over the new direction of travel

After 12 years as chief of one of education's most influential associations, you would expect John Dunford to have some juicy stories.

Surely his countless policy meetings with six successive education secretaries have yielded some revealing anecdote about Ed Balls' taste in biscuits, or Charles Clarke's choice of holiday destination?

It seems not: anyone hoping for a kiss-and-tell of life at the top end of education politics will be disappointed. Dr Dunford remains discreet to the last on the New Labour decision-makers he brushed up against in the corridors of power.

But this discretion, even on the eve of his retirement as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), is perhaps what has helped the organisation achieve so much during his tenure.

Although many headteachers claim the Government has yet to learn to trust them, it seems Dr Dunford successfully won the ear of ministers in his endless fight to ensure policies dreamt up in Whitehall make a degree of sense on the front line.

The battle may not yet be won, but he insists that by the last election, communications were better than ever and the association was able to influence policy even before it was made.

A born spokesman, with a talent for talking at regulation short-hand speed, the rangily elegant 63-year-old has also managed to court the media to an astonishing degree, casting the spotlight on hundreds of pressing issues for schools and heads.

In the past ten years, he has been mentioned almost 2,000 times in UK national newspapers alone. At annual conferences he is always to be seen buzzing around the press room like a benevolent uncle, meticulously crafting his media messages.

He says this unrelenting campaign, continued throughout his 12-year tenure, has led the ASCL to achieve a cultural shift towards a recognition that heads are best placed to bring about school improvement. Collaboration and partnership working are more important than competition, he says.

He lists the prominence of the National College's national leaders of education initiative, the multiplication of so-called "hard" and "soft" federations, and the introduction of school improvement partners as evidence of this trend.

He says: "A few years ago when a school was in trouble they could be talking about private companies coming in, but there's now a clear recognition that the expertise to improve schools lies among school leaders.

"The Government and National College have accepted this is the best way to do things, that the best school leaders lead the system. This is different to times gone by when the local authority led the system."

But as Dr Dunford is keen to admit, the job has not all been plain sailing, and secondary headteachers - and the teaching profession in general - have been rocked by a succession of crises.

One of the worst, he says, was in 2003, when ministers made a series of controversial changes to school funding, apparently without studying the effects on individual schools.

Headteachers caught on the wrong side of the changes were astounded that they could be losing cash in an era of generous spending and enhanced pay. Charles Clarke, the then education secretary, faced a barrage of questions at that year's annual conference.

"That was very, very difficult at a time when the Government was raising school funding more than it had ever been raised before," he says.

Dr Dunford also feels much of his early tenure was spent righting the damage done by the claims of chief inspector Chris Woodhead that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers working in the country's schools.

"His criticism pulled the system back for a long time," Dr Dunford says. "The only legitimate way in which the chief inspector can speak with more authority than other people is by using the massive amount of evidence that Ofsted has - and Chris Woodhead didn't use that.

"His speeches were polemical rather than evidential and they were given far too much currency. Real damage was done to the teaching profession during that time. We should be in a position where we can use the evidence of inspections to persuade government to do sensible things, but we couldn't use that, we had to fight against the polemical arguments of the chief inspector."

Other troubled times came in the form of the A-level marking farrago under Estelle Morris, and the teacher shortage of 2001.

"Many heads were having to recruit from abroad," he said. "If you couldn't fill the post, supply teachers were often of doubtful quality and very expensive.

"Morale was really low and pay was quite poor, but that has all improved now. The TTATDA (Teacher Training AgencyTraining and Development Agency) advertising campaign helped to turn it around by improving the image of teaching."

Dr Dunford also expresses distaste for the way in which the language of education has developed and become corrupted over the past decade.

He is probably not alone in harbouring a dislike of the classics of the New Labour lexicon, including "delivery" "standards" "world class" and "choice".

"Choice is seen as a wholly good thing, but there's a downside to choice: the breakdown of the continuity of education between its different phases. The political rhetoric of choice has raised parental expectations to an impossibly high level," he says.

On the debate over "standards" he believes it would be "scandalous" if exams were the same as when they were first invented. He says: "It would be impossible to state definitively whether the standard of an exam at A-level in 2010 is the same as 1951. The fact is that students have to work just as hard to get a grade A.

"It's clear that exam boards work more closely with teachers and they are better at coaching their students for the exams."

But all this aside, as he heads for retirement, the former headteacher of Durham Johnston Comprehensive says his overall tenure as general secretary as been a "wonderful, wonderful, amazing opportunity", which he took after 24 years in school leadership.

He has clearly relished the fact that 15,000 leaders have his email address, too, and contact him about problems in their schools.

And he remains positive on the future of education, despite concerns about how the trend towards across-the-board academy status could damage the move towards collaboration and partnership working.

"I spent 40 years in education and you couldn't do that without being an optimist, so I'm optimistic about present trends.

"But my greatest concern is the idea that we could be heading for a 'cornershop system', growing out of the trend towards independence.

"A lot of schools will take this opportunity - not least because of the additional funding that will come their way, a cushion to the fiscal problems in the coming years.

"But we have shown that the system works better when schools collaborate. The onus will be on individual school leaders to work in partnership with other schools. We want schools to have autonomy in a framework of collaboration."

Neither does the new Academies Bill, he points out, oblige those switching status to collaborate with weaker schools.

Dr Dunford is less concerned about the proposed "free schools", which he does not foresee taking off in a major way. He is also sceptical about the extent to which parents will "run" them.

"It will be companies that set up the schools - parents won't have time to do a massive amount setting up a school."

However, none of this will be Dr Dunford's direct concern when his successor, headteacher Brian Lightman, takes charge in September. He says he has every faith in his colleague, who has the added "street cred" of being a serving head.

Dr Dunford will still be a mover and shaker in the education world, maintaining a spot on the board of the National College, Teach First, and Future Leaders and fulfilling the role of chair of Whole Education and WorldWide Volunteering.

He has, however, ruled out taking on the role of the Government's "chief education officer" if the post were created in the mould of the chief medical officer. But he does support the concept of an independent voice for education in Whitehall.

With all this on his retirement plate, it is perhaps not surprising that he has little to say on relaxing plans for his golden years.

Asked whether he will be indulging in any hobbies with the free time at his disposal (a little gardening, perhaps?), he is enigmatic. "There's none I could mention that wouldn't look stupid written down on paper," he smiles. Again, giving nothing away.

No chance of any memoirs then, Dr Dunford?

SIX OF THE BEST? - Education secretaries of the Dunford tenure

David Blunkett

Estelle Morris

Charles Clarke

Ruth Kelly

Alan Johnson

Ed Balls


Dr Dunford's post-retirement roles

- Chair, Whole Education

- Chair, WorldWide Volunteering

- Board member, National College

- Board member, Teach First

- Board member, Future Leaders.

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