If you can't hack the pace, 'man up', says Gove
While the Association of School and College Leaders' (ASCL) conference may traditionally be one of the less daunting prospects for ministers doing the tour of the education unions' spring get-togethers, this year was quite different.
With a joint TESASCL survey of 1,800 school leaders, published on the first day of the conference, revealing that more than a third were actively planning to leave the profession due to widespread despondency caused by his reforms, it was clear that education secretary Michael Gove was going to need more than his trademark charm.
While he was at pains to laud what he described as "the best generation of heads ever in our schools", Mr Gove was unrepentant about the need to shake up the school system. "Lest anyone think we have reached a point where we should slacken the pace of reform," he said, "let me reassure them - we have to accelerate."
And, while the assembled masses at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole politely but firmly made their displeasure known, ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman called on Mr Gove to "make today a turning point in the relationship between school leaders and government".
"I think there's a real issue of capacity in lots of our schools and, actually, by accelerating the reform too much then you prevent us from doing it properly," he added.
Mr Gove admitted that the TESASCL survey had given him "pause for thought", acknowledging that using the "wrong sound bite" can "offend someone", before admitting: "I'm as guilty of that as anyone." But any hopes that he had heeded Mr Lightman's pleas to "rebuild the relationship the profession has with the government" were soon dashed.
In the press conference that followed his speech, Mr Gove was adamant that the majority of school leaders supported his reforms. "The person who has got the greatest grumble tends to dominate the conversation ... The impression I have got is there are groups of school leaders who are enthused and energised by what we are doing."
If anyone had been left in any doubt, he added: "If people say 'it's all just a bit too much', then ... my view is: 'man up'.
"If you allow an evidence-based, pragmatically-arrived-at programme of change, which is driven by a desire for social justice, to be derailed by people saying the change is too fast then, as Martin Luther King pointed out, you end up being an ally of the forces of stagnation."
Mr Gove did have one olive branch to offer delegates: he suggested that he would not be opposed to giving schools warning of an impending "no notice" inspection "the afternoon or evening beforehand", in order to ensure that heads would be present.
He did, however, blot his copybook somewhat: to hoots of derision from ASCL members, he insisted that the decision would be down to the "independent" Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who had received a polite but prickly welcome from members the previous day.
Pat McGovern, head of Helston Community College in Cornwall, asked the minister how he intended to raise the morale of heads despite his "negative messaging". Meanwhile, Martin Kerridge, principal of Madeley High School in Crewe, said that the "constant" series of announcements and changes had left the profession uncertain of the direction in which the schools sector was moving.
Mr Lightman ended his response to Mr Gove by admitting that he would not be presenting the education secretary with his customary gift, but he insisted that a token of the ASCL's appreciation - a special "swear box", to deter ministers from publicly disparaging the profession - had simply been delayed by the delivery company. It would, he promised, soon be on its way.
As the delegates filtered out of the hall, there seemed to be little optimism that messages from the government that were more positive would follow suit.
Results of the TESASCL survey of school leaders
37% are actively planning to leave the profession
54% are considering leaving
66% are less happy in their jobs than a year ago
92% don't think the government is supportive of the teaching profession
23% of heads would recommend headship to their colleagues
73% of deputies and assistant heads said they are less likely to want to take up a headship than they would have been 12 months ago
61% of heads said the government's education reforms will have a detrimental impact on the state of education.