As secondaries increase their powers under the five-year plan it is crucial to avoid past mistakes, writes John Dunford
Education ministers are fond of saying that they have not introduced any initiatives recently and it is indeed a relief that, unlike their predecessors, they do not feel the need to announce in every speech a few million pounds for hot towels or cold showers or the latest school improvement wheeze.
The Government's five-year education strategy may not be an initiative but, together with other schemes, it provides a massive agenda for schools in the new academic year.
The five-year strategy includes a long list of reforms for secondaries - the challenge to personalise pupils' learning, school-based (rather than government-imposed) target-setting, and opportunities for schools to apply for foundation status, add a second specialism if they are already specialist schools, expand pupil numbers if they are over-subscribed, become an extended school by offering services other than education, add a sixth form, and much more.
Alongside these freedoms, schools are encouraged to work together in foundation partnerships, jointly taking responsibility for services currently provided by local authorities, such as school improvement, provision for excluded pupils or organising special needs provision.
There is a great deal for secondary schools to welcome in the strategy, but there are some unanswered questions that need to be resolved if schools are to be confident of the strategic direction they should be taking. These arise mainly from the tension between greater freedom for individual schools and the increased collaboration that the Government agrees is necessary if the secondary school system as a whole is to improve.
How will the freedom for popular schools to expand avoid harming others? Surely greater co-operation, rather than more competition, is required if the job of schools with the most difficult intake is not to be made harder.
Increasing parental choice, of which we heard much from political party leaders during the summer, holds similar dangers.
How will the Learning and Skills Council conduct its post-16 strategic area reviews, currently under way throughout the country, when schools are being given greater freedom in the five-year strategy to start new sixth forms? Collaboration on post-16 (and increasingly 14 to 19) should surely remain a higher priority.
How strong are foundation partnerships to be? Will schools be able to avoid partnerships if they do not wish to collaborate with their neighbours?
Ministers say that they do not want to return to the grant-maintained era, when school was pitted against school in a belief that competition produced improvement. But foundation partnerships will have to include all schools - including academies and city technology colleges - and will have to hold real powers if that is to be avoided. The partnership framework must be strong for increased autonomy and greater collaboration to produce improvement across the system.
Two measures would bolster collaboration and demonstrate the Government's commitment to partnership between schools. Performance tables, which focus exclusively on individual schools, should instead reflect the work of groups of schools where they exist, and some of the funding for improvement should be channelled through the partnership instead of the individual school.
Systemwide improvement will largely depend on the extent to which networking and collaboration can be sustained and increased in the context of more independent secondaries. Foundation partnerships must build on existing collaboration and should be open to all secondaries. A more autonomous secondary system will inevitably create more diverse local education authorities, with only authorities that add real value continuing to provide direct services to schools.
The future of education authorities appears to be more as commissioning bodies for children's trusts and foundation partnerships. This path is already being followed in some areas and it is proving popular with secondaries.
This LEA role is consistent with the Prime Minister's view that "the old top-down approach won't work any more" and at last secondaries are to set their own targets, instead of the Government's target being pressed on them by an LEA inspector.
Ministers have often said, but only recently recognised, that schools improve schools (not ministers or inspectors or local officials, although all can play a part) and, in an academic year that is likely to include a general election, school leaders will accept the challenge of an agenda that places on them the responsibility and autonomy that they have been demanding.
An important part of this is the responsibility to work with other schools and, if they can combine greater freedom successfully with strong partnerships, it will be more difficult for future governments to reintroduce the suffocating top-down approach that schools have experienced for the past 20 years.
Dr John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association