This 'toxic narrative' constrains creativity

23rd March 2012 at 00:00

A record number of people are making their way to the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in Birmingham today against a backdrop of unprecedented upheaval in our education service. If last year felt like a torrent of initiatives, this one feels like a veritable tornado, with seemingly nothing untouched.

It was always going to be a difficult time, with budget cuts, a pay freeze and deeply unpopular changes to pensions. The challenges of rising unemployment, child poverty and the aftermath of the riots of last August place a deep responsibility on all of us to give young people the best possible start in life. As school and college leaders, we take this responsibility very seriously and are determined to make our good education service even better.

Ofsted evidence shows that teaching, leadership, behaviour and so on in schools have all made great improvements in recent years, yet as the survey published in this week's TES vividly shows, morale has been thrown into free fall by what feels like an endless barrage of negative statements in the media calling into question the commitment of professionals who work in schools and colleges.

One has to ask how the originators of such statements can seriously believe that this vituperative approach will be effective when there is so much evidence about the futility of coercive leadership styles. I am also fearful of the messages these headlines send to parents, young people and international observers; it's hardly a way of building confidence.

It seems that the teaching profession and its leaders are to blame for everything that is not yet right in our system. Exams are apparently too easy, not all teaching is good or outstanding, behaviour is not perfect and not all schools are outstanding, despite Ofsted continuing to raise the bar. Social mobility has not been cracked and the number of unemployed young people is increasing.

The solutions proposed are punitive - no-notice inspections, more schools in special measures, the sacking of teachers as the objective of performance management and blaming schools for doing exactly what successive governments have told them to do through performance indicators.

Recently, an enthusiastic and obviously very able young teacher described her feelings to me as follows: "When I'm in the classroom, I love the job. I know I'm doing something really important and it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction to see the children making progress and blossoming.

"The trouble is that, as soon as you get back into the staffroom or go home and switch on the news or read the paper, you hear more negativity ignoring the reality of what is going on and talking down our profession."

I will be describing in my speech to the conference how this approach has created a whole tranche of what I have called constrained schools. Often operating in an environment affected by a challenging intake, falling rolls and the imminence of an Ofsted inspection, they are constantly forced to look over their shoulders rather than having the confidence to set out a long-term vision and design a curriculum in the interests of their students.

These schools have no choice but to focus to an unhealthy extent on external targets, teaching to the test and reacting to the latest government pronouncement. Their capacity to be creative is stifled and promises of autonomy are a hollow illusion. Many of the hardworking leaders of those schools - more than 300 ASCL members in 2011 - have found their positions in jeopardy as "football-manager syndrome" takes increasing hold.

As Ofsted plans a significant increase in the number of schools "requiring improvement" and subject to frequent reinspection, the number of constrained schools is set to increase. I have real questions about who would take on a leadership post in a challenging school. The irony is that it is precisely those schools that require the best leaders.

The opposite of a constrained school is a confident one, in which the leadership team and governing body are able to set out their own vision and plans over a period of years rather than months. They consider policy initiatives from government, but have the confidence and autonomy to implement them as they see fit. And they can adopt a relatively relaxed attitude to accountability measures. Of course, they remain fully accountable for the outcomes and progress the students make. This is the climate the government should be endeavouring to create for all schools.

At our conference, the theme of which is "Leading the System", the ASCL will be calling on the government to cease this toxic narrative, which is causing untold damage to education and doing a huge disservice to the many thousands of committed professionals who work within it. I do not believe I am exaggerating by saying that we are reaching crisis point. I have no doubts whatsoever about the government's commitment to creating a world-class education service and high-status profession, but I am absolutely convinced that they will only achieve this noble aim by taking school and college leaders with them.

Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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