Moral imperatives for our schooling system by Brian Lightman

Some 36 years ago I was advised against going into teaching by just about everyone. ‘Go into business’, ‘become an accountant’ etc. etc. Thank goodness my rebellious streak and anger that this fantastic vocation should be seen as inferior to other careers led to my decision to ignore that advice. I have never regretted it.

All these years later I have been reflecting about how our system has moved on. Are we, as the Secretary of State recently said in a speech to ASCL conference, in a ‘Golden Age’ for education? Or, as other commentators are saying, are we in the depths of a really significant crisis around recruitment, retention, funding, school places and a frenetic agenda for change? Have the many different initiatives and government led policies I have experienced made a difference? And is the dream of governments stepping back from constant intervention in support of a largely school led, self-improving system on the cusp of becoming a reality?

Today there are three deep seated issues which need to be addressed by everyone who shares the belief that a civilised society must aspire towards the highest quality education system for all young people.

  1. There needs to be public recognition that we have an education system to be proud of which has changed for the better beyond recognition. Too many commentators and policymakers who have little or no experience of the state system perpetuate images of chaotic institutions, riotous behaviour, rife bullying and many other ills. Too rarely do we see images of the orderly and well led institutions staffed by highly committed professionals. We need to break the myths that pervade our education system.
  1. Our profession needs to rebuild its confidence. It needs to be able to recruit the best people, nurture and support their continuous professional learning, and of course it needs to be properly resourced. That is not just about funding but about access to high-quality support services for the many vulnerable children whose problems go beyond anything schools can address alone.
  1. Sustainability must be built into our education system. Countless initiatives often focused on structural change and high stakes accountability have not been given time to embed. Many of these initiatives had great potential but the five-year electoral cycle meant that they sank into oblivion upon the change of a government or ministerial team. If policymakers continue to eschew the need for stability, courageous school leaders need to capture those things that work and confidently build on that success.

We all know that the key to further improvement is situated in our schools. Here therefore are 10 questions for schools to consider as they continue their improvement journey.

  1. Do all members of the school community share, walk and talk a clearly articulated educational vision of the whole school community?
  2. Do curriculum planning and staff allocations reflect that vision and encompass the totality of experiences to which young people have access, and not just what they learn in the classroom?
  3. Does the school have a culture which embeds the celebration of success into all aspects of its operation, but equally recognises that failure is an important part of learning for everyone and that an ambitious, aspirational culture needs to take risks which will not always lead to successes?
  4. Is the culture of the school reflective, analytical, self-critical and informed by first hand evidence and research as opposed to a reaction to the latest accountability measure or ministerial whim?
  5. Is professional learning embedded in the culture of the school with a clearly defined ‘curriculum’ for all staff at all levels within the organisation?
  6. Has the school set out a clear recruitment, retention and succession planning strategy which demonstrates to potential applicants and serving staff that this is a great place to work which will help them to be better teachers/school leaders?
  7. Does the school’s planning cycle recognise that quick fixes do not lead to sustainable change, and do senior staff robustly challenge those who argue that they do?
  8. What steps are being taken to ensure that teaching staff have high levels of expertise in assessment?
  9. What systems are in place to ensure that the staff are suitably empowered to make effective use of data to impact on standards by understanding the questions this information asks, its power and its limitations?
  10. What steps is the school taking to prepare young people for their future careers by encountering employers, FEIs and HEIs and understanding that university is one of many options?

Brian recently stepped down from his role as General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He is working to help schools rise to this rapidly changing world of opportunities through his consultancy www.lightmanconsulting.co.uk  

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