Say it loud: leaders of our schools, unite!

6th June 2014 at 01:00
It's time for us to take control. Here, three educationalists issue a call to arms for headteachers in the face of unprecedented change

At a time when relations between government and teachers are, shall we say, strained, dialogue within the profession is worth a great deal.

This was the main reason that many school leaders and senior teachers were disappointed when the National College for Teaching and Leadership decided in 2013 to abandon its Seizing Success conference. It was an exceptional event - more than a thousand school leaders came together every year to discuss the future of education and, more importantly, to share best practice on how to improve outcomes for their pupils.

But then something unexpected happened. We realised that we didn't need the government to organise our conference, we could do it ourselves. Our three organisations - the NAHT headteachers' union, the Association of School and College Leaders and the CfBT Education Trust - decided to take it on. Same place. Same time. Different people behind it. Hopefully the same buzz.

This is more than a pitch for you to come to the conference (although you should); we believe this move should represent a symbolic and significant shift for the profession.

School leaders want respect. We want to be free from interference. We want control over our own destinies and a system that matches our ideals. If we want all this, we must take ownership of that system. We must crowd out political interference through professional leadership and take ownership of standards as well as responsibility for each other. This is what it means to be leaders - of our schools and of our profession.

We do not imagine that the process of achieving these aims will be a comfortable one. It will mean some difficult conversations about performance with our staffroom colleagues. It will mean better use of evidence, which may challenge our assumptions about how we run our schools. It will mean taking a stand on controversial issues that we might prefer to brush under the carpet.

Let's take one example. As a profession, we are incredibly responsive to incentives and targets. The government would not use league tables if they didn't change behaviour. In some ways, we are handing politicians the whips they need to flog us with. What are the professional values that would mitigate and soften the impact of targets and league tables? Where is our Hippocratic oath?

We need to work with the huge residual trust, respect and loyalty that exists towards teachers. But unless parents and the wider public see an honest debate among school leaders about the strengths and weaknesses of our schools, they will continue to let other voices - from outside the profession - dominate how they see education. That would be a crying shame.

Most of all, we will need to demonstrate that we are about inspirational teaching and leadership rather than conformity or regulatory control.

Leading from the front

The simple fact is that educational reform must come to be defined less by politicians and much more by the profession itself. We must own it.

How to achieve this? First, we must embrace evidence-based approaches to education. Teachers have to engage in serious discussion and evaluation of what actually improves outcomes for children rather than what we think might work or what we would like to be effective.

We will also need to welcome professional challenge and be positive about being held to account for how well we meet the educational needs of our young people and our communities. We need to embrace autonomy and collective responsibility in equal measure and, in particular, commit ourselves to achieving high standards for all rather than just for our own schools.

Similarly, we must have a positive attitude towards meeting the challenge of sweeping reforms to qualifications and the curriculum. Instead of standing at the sidelines and complaining about what we don't like, we have a golden opportunity to look again at our vision and values.

Anyone who has planned a school curriculum knows that you need to start with its aims and purposes in the context of the vision and ethos set out by the senior leadership team and the governors - not by working backwards from an exam or seeing the national and school curricula as separate things.

We must move discussion of the curriculum beyond measurable outcomes to the development of the whole individual.

So the challenge and opportunity for school and college leaders is to develop and implement in our schools a curriculum that is brought to life by a vision and values that inspire and motivate our young people.

It is this courage and confidence that typifies the inspirational leadership we are seeing more and more in the sector. And that is why we believe professional leaders and teachers are ready - like the sisters - to do it for themselves.

Russell Hobby is general secretary of headteachers' union the NAHT; Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders; Steve Munby is chief executive of the CfBT Education Trust. The Inspiring Leadership conference will take place on 11-13 June at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham. For more details, visit bit.lyILConference

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