Resist the temptation to be moaners

13th March 2009 at 00:00
Let's move beyond the normal carping this conference season - and get governments to start trusting us

With the teachers' union conferences starting today, we can expect the usual flurry of newspaper headlines. They will recount complaints from school staff about the Government, pupils and parents - probably in that order.

But does it have to be so negative? Is there a better way of achieving our shared aim of improving schools? The best interests of young people are served when unions engage with government in making policy, bringing their experience and insight to bear on what politicians want to introduce. It's important to be mindful of these two dimensions: policy and implementation. Schools won't get better simply because of light-bulb moments at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

A well-run education service brings implementation into the heart of policy-making and vice versa, as happens in the highly-rated system in Singapore, where teachers and heads work regularly and collaboratively in the ministry of education. One English headteacher on a recent visit there described what he saw as "top-down support for bottom-up initiatives".

There have been examples in England. Wanting to do more to support schools on behaviour, ministers turned to Sir Alan Steer, an experienced and successful headteacher, who had put learning and teaching at the heart of behaviour policies at Seven Kings High School in north-east London.

Sir Alan consulted widely and is producing a series of reports that have the approval of both professionals and ministers and that will surely contribute to better behaviour in schools. The 2009 bill starting its journey through Parliament contains measures based on his recommendations.

A second example is the school improvement partner (SIP) programme. It was introduced in 2005 as part of the Government's drive to create a new relationship with schools in response to our association's calls for intelligent accountability and a Cabinet Office report that highlighted the excessive bureaucracy in schools.

SIPs have generally been a positive development. Much of this is due to the fact that the two-year pilot was led by Chris Tweedale, a Herefordshire secondary head, who was then on secondment to the department and is now leading schools' policy in Wales.

But the positive elements of the programme are being put at risk by a choking bureaucracy and a torrent of instructions and targets. Policy has become divorced from implementation so it is creating an increased burden on heads instead of streamlining.

The so-called "single conversation" which was supposed to take place between the SIP and the head has been hijacked by central and local government setting targets from above. This process should be about shared improvement, not covert control.

The 2003 workforce agreement and the associated social partnership is perhaps the best example of constructive engagement in policymaking between ministers, DCSF officials and representatives of the profession. This is modern trade unionism at its best, shaping the future of the profession and working for improvement across the system. Ministers have been wise to capitalise on the willingness of almost all the unions to engage positively in this way.

But genuine examples of partnership - on policy-making and implementation - are all too few in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The structures are not there. Yes, groups of heads are consulted, but rarely when the policies are being framed, and even more rarely are they asked: "How does this policy fit with everything else?" It's a critical question if we are to end the damaging contradictions between policies.

In particular, governments need to listen to the voice of the profession about how much we can take on at once. I am continually saying to ministers and officials that schools are being expected to implement too many initiatives. This year, for example, the introduction of the diploma and the changes to GCSE and A-level - alongside the continuing challenges of raising standards and narrowing the gaps - would be more than enough. Yet so much more is being introduced at the same time.

In 2008, the DCSF carried out 79 policy consultations and this year we are set for even more.

Governments don't have all the answers. Nor does the profession. But, working together, we could get it right. So governments should trust the profession more by regulating less and by bringing us more into the policy- making process at every level.

As a member of the social partnership, I am extensively consulted by the Government in London, but I want to see other experienced professionals also taking part in policy discussions at all levels. Accountability provides a key example of where the professional voice is needed.

No teacher or school leader, ambitious to raise the achievement of every young person, is happy with such a blunt, core-accountability measure as the proportion of 16-year-olds gaining five A* to C GCSE grades including English and mathematics.

A better measure would provide an incentive to improve every student's achievement and experience, so it is important that the proposed "report card" for schools is designed from the outset by professionals and officials working together.

Schools and colleges have delivered in recent years on improving examination results, reforming the workforce, introducing new courses and extended services, raising participation, helping community cohesion and much more. Yet too often it feels as if there is a low level of trust, with far too much legislation and too many new statutory duties and regulations.

Our association members want a higher performing system as much as anyone and are prepared to take responsibility and collective action to bring this about. With a high-trust model of school improvement, the impact will be deep and sustainable.

Instead of things being done to us, let school leaders and ministers stand side by side and say: "Together we're improving our schools."

Dr John Dunford, General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, whose annual conference starts today in Birmingham.

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