Ministers, get your heads together

10th March 2006 at 00:00
A former government adviser says school leaders need more help. Susan Young talks to Robert Hill

The challenges facing schools are now so great that the Government should be strongly encouraging much greater collaboration, says one of its former senior advisers.

Demands of globalisation and social upheaval mean schools are dealing with enormous change, almost without debate, says Robert Hill in a book published next week. It is, he says, unrealistic to expect heads and schools to cope as individuals and do their best for all children in isolation.

Mr Hill's recommendations, resulting from months of research in schools, may make unpalatable reading among his former colleagues in the Government.

"The Government's mixed messages on competition and collaboration between schools is undermining attempts to deliver system-wide sustainable improvement at a local level," he writes.

"School leaders want a clear message that freedom for individual schools should function within a framework of shared responsibility of all schools.

In particular the Government should incentivise collaboration, either financially by, for example, delegating extra financial resources, or by giving freedoms to clusters of schools."

He adds: "There are signs that the Government may be starting to get the message about incentivising collaboration. the education Bill includes a legal framework for partnership to deliver 14-19. And the Secretary of State has just made pound;30m available for stronger schools to support struggling schools."

As a former private adviser and political secretary to Tony Blair, and special adviser to Charles Clarke at the Department for Education and Skills and Home Office, he chooses his words carefully. But Mr Hill clearly believes that the measures in the current education Bill, such as trust schools, are unlikely to be a cure for the problems currently facing education.

His research has led him to the conclusion that increasing globalisation and the dramatic changes in British society, resulting from family upheavals and working parents, are developing into a new set of demands on secondary schools which are only just starting to be understood.

"School leaders need to understand they are strategically right in the cockpit of big economic developments over the next five to ten years and we are therefore trying to get them to appreciate some of the significance of things, really big ideas they are being asked to engage with by parents and society and government," he says.

Pressed further, he adds: "They've got a vital role in a changing society, and no, I don't think all of them understand it."

It is not only school leaders who are being slow to appreciate their changing role, says Mr Hill: government and society have not yet fully understood what is happening. Of the Government, he says: "I don't think they sit back and ask 'what does this mean for our schools now?' If they did, arguably some of the things in the white paper might have been a bit different."

The row over trust schools, he says, has clouded the debate and created a lack of clarity about how the system should move forward. Mr Hill's book, Leadership that Lasts: Sustainable School Leadership in the 21st Century, is being published by the Association of School and College Leaders. He wants it to provoke discussion about how schools and their leadership teams should operate, and inspire the next generation of school leaders.

His main concerns are that the increasingly challenging nature of school leadership should be developed in such a way that it is sustainable: leaders do continue to come forward to jobs they feel are manageable, rather than impossible; and that schools come together for the benefit of all the children in an area.

He believes it is possible for the Government to encourage a model where schools have autonomy and yet can work together, and gives the analogy of athletes who train together but can still compete when the time comes.

He argues that creating new structures is not the answer. During his months of research Mr Hill has been inspired by many of the initiatives he has seen in schools and the way in which leadership is changing from the headteacher model to different types of team, and argues that these developments are the foundation for improving standards. He identifies five drivers for raising standards: parental and family engagement, 14-19 curriculum changes, personalised learning, quality of teachers within schools and collaboration.

"We've got to make sure no child is left behind and no school is left behind. We've got to incentivise schools in the system to help those that are lagging to catch the others up. I think increasingly heads are prepared to work in this way and move forward as a group in an area if the weaker brother or sister is lagging. The do see a wider responsibility to all children in an area."

Mr Hill is fairly optimistic about the future of school leadership, despite much-publicised recruitment problems. "I think school leadership is strong but needs to be reinforced. Above all it needs to be sustained... that's the bit that's worrying really. There's cause for concern unless we take a number of positive steps. It's an amber rather than a red light at the moment."

pound;20 available from ASCL on 0116 2991122 or email

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