For leaders of state schools, the idea of headship in the private sector can seem attractive. There is a stereotypical view of relaxed, maverick school leaders, taking pride in their independence from the state.
But this week private school heads shattered that image, accusing the government of “inundating” them with changes that have often needed to be implemented at the busiest points in the academic year.
Alun Jones, president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), told its annual conference that the “sheer volume of regulatory change” was now “untenable” for independent and state schools. “The impact on workloads has been massive and the increased stress among staff is worrying,” he said.
State school headteachers’ leaders have rallied to his cause. They say that a few seemingly straightforward but ill-timed decisions from the government can quickly overwhelm heads with an avalanche of work.
Sources close to government have told TES that heads can expect some respite over the next few years. But concerns remain that ministers have not worked out how to fulfil their workload pledges to school leaders.
The GSA, which represents 150 independent schools, is lobbying government for a recognised “annual cycle for regulatory change” from September to May, which would set a clear pattern for consultations, discussions and the publication of guidance. This would give schools the whole of the summer term to implement changes, it argues.
Mr Jones, who is head of St Gabriel’s School in Berkshire, said: “Schools are being inundated by new and revised regulations, often at the busiest times of the year. It is incredible that those who regulate schools seem to have little understanding of how schools work. The amount of regulation that schools are subject to has grown exponentially and is coming at schools ever more frequently.”
Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that changes could be brought in less chaotically across all sectors. “It’s helpful to have things coming in a block, usually at the start of an academic year,” he said. “I think Alun is right to call for a single change date.”
Mr Jones pointed out that consultations sometimes came up during the school holidays, eating into leaders’ downtime.
“I completely agree that we must have robust legislation that keeps children safe and gives everyone clear guidance about how to do that,” he said. “But the sheer volume of regulatory change – plus revision upon revision, sometimes only weeks later – is untenable.”
At present, state and independent school leaders are struggling with preparing for the latest wave of reformed GCSEs and A-levels from September 2016, at the same time as introducing a range of safeguarding measures.
The new Prevent duty on public bodies, for example, means that schools and colleges must have “clear procedures in place for protecting children at risk of radicalisation”. Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation cases has also come into force this term.
Decade of stability?
Under the government’s Workload Challenge, education secretary Nicky Morgan promised one year’s notice of “significant” changes.
However, Mr Trobe said the Department for Education had yet to define what counted as a “major change”. Despite the problems, he conceded that the government needed the power to impose new regulations in urgent situations, especially around safeguarding.
A source close to government told TES that the “massive” amount of change was unlikely to continue at the same rate. “All the big policy announcements made in 2012-14 are hitting now and it is likely to calm down after that,” he said, predicting a decade of stability in qualifications and the curriculum.
But some inconvenience from changes to regulations was inevitable, the source added, and schools would be affected by the forthcoming education and childcare bills.
Issues relating to finance were often driven by the financial, not the academic year, the source noted. But he conceded that holding consultations during the holidays was likely the result of “stupidity” rather than necessity.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are giving schools a minimum lead-in time for significant changes to accountability, curriculum and qualifications, and are not making changes to qualifications in the academic year or during a course, unless there are urgent reasons for doing so.”
Recent government changes that have contributed to school leaders’ workload:
The Prevent duty, which obliges schools to take steps to keep young people from being radicalised.
Mandatory reporting of female genital mutilation.
Checking that all staff meet new guidance on “disqualification by association”.