Hands on or hands off?

28th January 2005 at 00:00
To what extent does the DfES plan to shape the future of the leadership college? Martin Whittaker reports

One of Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's first tasks on taking office last month was writing to the National College for School Leadership, setting out its role, funding and future direction.

This letter is also her department's response to last year's very mixed review of the college's progress. And what is immediately noticeable is its prescriptiveness.

In 16 pages it spells out in great detail the challenges ahead for schools and how the college should prioritise its programmes to help school leaders meet them.

But a critical factor it also seeks to address is the relationship between the college and the Department for Education and Skills. Last summer's review criticised a lack of overall coherence in the way the college and DfES worked together.

Ruth Kelly's letter now talks of that relationship being characterised "in both directions, by openness, clarity, consistency, challenge and a shared sense of purpose".

But the devil is in the detail. The new remit says the college will have termly stock-takes with ministers, an annual review between Secretary of State and college governors, and "informal" weekly meetings with DfES officials. Is this the dead hand of government on the NCSL's shoulder?

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the Kelly letter brings "unbelievably detailed control of the college's programmes".

"The critical point to me is the extent to which the college itself, the governing body and the profession can have a strong enough say in the direction of the college," he says. "There's a big question mark over the extent to which the DfES wants to control the detail of the operation."

The NCSL's chair Vanni Treves sees it very differently. He says the remit letter was no tablet of stone dropped on the college from a great height by Ruth Kelly. The DfES, he says, will always be responsible for setting its strategic framework. "That has always been so. It may have been articulated in different ways, but it is the department's job to set up a strategic framework," he said.

"Then increasingly as the college grows in experience and capability, we will rely on it as our leading source of policy advice and support on all matters to do with school leadership."

So what changes will school leaders see in the new-look, post-shake-up leadership college?

First, there are new figures at the helm. Corporate lawyer and troubleshooter Vanni Treves took over as chair of the governing council last year. He is also chairman of the London Business School, KornFerry International, Equitable Life and the Intertek Group.

And in March, Steve Munby succeeds Heather du Quesnay as NCSL's chief executive. Mr Munby has been director of education and lifelong learning in Knowsley on Merseyside, for more than four years. There he has overseen innovative school and local education authority partnerships and has been well-received by headteachers.

But some have already noted with dismay the choice of a chief executive with no experience of running a school. Although most of the short-listed candidates were heads, Steve Munby was unanimously regarded as the best person for the job, says Mr Treves.

He says: "There are very few headteachers who ... are capable of moving from a plenipotentiary position in their own school, which is a relatively small firmament of, let's say, 100 teachers and 1,500 children, to a major national job involving 24,000 heads, as well as bursars, aspirant heads and department heads."

Among the challenges Ruth Kelly sets out are for the college to be "the driving force of world-class leadership and management practice" and "to act as an intelligent commissioner and funding agent of activity" to spread this practice across schools.

It will have to work more closely with the Teacher Training Agency, which now has a bigger role in continuing professional development, and with the Specialist Schools Trust.

The college will no longer look after the team implementing the workload agreement, which now goes to the TTA. And it is expected to develop more online, modular and personalised learning to fit school leaders' busy working lives and to extend the college's reach.

The letter also sets targets and prescribes priorities for the college's programmes, alongside its established courses. These include developing programmes for middle leaders - in the coming year it is expected to train a further 6,000 middle managers.

School business management is also very much on the agenda given workforce remodelling, with NCSL expected to provide 1,400 places on its bursar development programme.

And then there are the changes to children's services and their implications for schools as set out in Every Child Matters legislation. The college is expected to take at least 400 people on to its new course in integrated-centre leadership.

The Kelly letter also presses the college on the fact that there is no dedicated programme to prepare heads for running a new academy, school federation or oddly, "a school with serious weakness".

In terms of funding, the Secretary of State grants the college nearly Pounds 100 million for 2005-6 - a fall on last year's pound;111.3 million.

And in line with other public bodies, the NCSL has a commitment to reducing its administrative costs by at least 15 per cent by 2007-8, but has ruled out redundancies.

The college's financial management has also been tightened up. "I think it's fair to say as is the case with many other fast-growing new organisations, that there was, at the margins, scope for rigour," says Vanni Treves.

General election results permitting, the national college will have to become market-driven, as it sees its government funding reduced in the long run with money delegated to schools to pay for leadership training.

Professor Geoff Southworth, the college's interim chief executive, argues that this will make it more accountable and responsive to the needs of school leaders.

But isn't there a risk that schools in financial difficulty may think twice about spending money on leadership?

"That is a risk," he says. "It's therefore a challenge ... to demonstrate to the profession that professional learning makes a big difference to the quality of what they do and the services they provide to children."

He points to the college's own recent surveys, which found that 77 per cent of heads believe the college helps to raise standards in schools, 71 per cent see it as a major resource for school leaders, and 52 per cent think it shapes education thinking and policy.

Professor Southworth is confident that the Secretary of State's new remit will be good for the college and the profession.

"If you talk to many heads, the greatest need they have is for growth, development and support of their colleagues in leadership teams and middle levels.

"I think the college has made an important difference, moving away from just a fascination with heads to a much broader view of leadership."

But the pivotal factor remains how well the college works with the DfES.

Vanni Treves says the new remit has drawn a line under criticisms raised by last year's end-to-end review, and now allows the college to move forward.

But there are also changes in personnel on both sides of the fence. As well as the new faces in the college's own leadership, Charles Clarke and David Miliband have moved on, while there have been other changes of key personnel within the DfES.

"I think it's fair to say that the working of the relationship going forward will depend critically on the way in which these people get on with each other," says Mr Treves.

"My open expectation is that we'll get on with each other extremely well."

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