ISC & ASCL: leave education to us

Government should set the strategic direction, not interfere in detail, say Barnaby Lenon and Brian Lightman

Speaking on the final day of the Girls’ Schools Association annual conference, both Barnaby Lenon of the Independent Schools Council and Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders called for politicians to concern themselves with educational strategy and to leave the detail to educationalists. 

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the ISC, said: “Yesterday we were all thinking about Tristram Hunt. In a way his policies are absurd. But from yesterday’s experience I draw one conclusion, which is that ASCL and all the educational associations need to lobby to stop politicians interfering with what schools do. 

“One of Labour’s measures is that independent schools will be fined if they don’t have a certain kind of fixture list. This is madness, that Mr Hunt thinks that he can control a fixture list. The push back against these politicians needs to start in earnest. All of us who run any kind of school share this view. Government should set the strategic direction, not interfere in detail.” 

Talking about the current Government, Mr Lenon said: “Of course there are many things that we haven’t liked in recent times, including the speed and the scope of change, and the relative lack of work done on providing something for the bottom third of the ability range. But, on an optimistic note, it’s interesting to think back about the successes we’ve had. We have been kept inside the teachers’ pension scheme. The government have put a new regime in the Charity Commission. Controlling grade inflation measures is really important. Measures to toughen up GCSE and A Levels is something all [ISC] associations wanted, cutting down on modules, creating a new performance measure for GCSEs and the A Level facilitating subjects measure.”   

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “I can’t agree more about the issue of interference and micro-management. I think our associations have more in common to talk about than at any time I can remember and I really value that link. 

“One of the things I really want to highlight is that we have tried to open up a much bigger discussion about what really matters to anyone with anything to do with school leadership. Too often politicians get bogged down in their own structural changes and forget the basic questions. We asked those fundamental questions with all kinds of stakeholders and importantly with young people themselves.

“At the beginning of the debate a number of people said I was being naïve about there being a consensus in education but I’m telling you there was an enormous consensus. It was about rigour and the wider aspects of a good ‘grounded and rounded’ education. And what we’ve now moved onto is a consultation for our blueprint for a self-improving system.

“We’re saying to government, let go. You’ve got to put some trust back in the system. Everyone knows the economic imperative but we need to do the leading. We are the people who can drive forward the education system. We’ve been discussing [the blueprint] with government and they like it. But it’s an equally great challenge to us [ie education leaders] if we’re going to unleash greatness rather than mandate adequacy.

“What’s encouraging is that the debate has been opened up by Nicky Morgan saying that she’s interested in the wider aspects of education. Character, resilience and grit seem to be the latest politician’s buzz words. We were all saying that long before but nevertheless they do matter. Some really interesting things are going on in terms of how we can work in partnership [with government].

“The trickier things include the whole thing about qualifications. There is a real issue about what standards are. What does a grade C mean in terms of what a young person has learned? Teachers are telling me that it’s very difficult to look at a pupils’ work and say ‘that’s a C’. One of the things we’re pushing hard at is the new GCSEs so we know what those grades mean in terms of learning outcomes. Not how many per cent get what grades or how it fits into PISA, but what you need to know in order to get a certain grade.”

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