A new education vision beyond politics


Rather than constant churn and piecemeal change, we need a longer-term vision for education that lasts beyond political cycles, argues Brian Lightman.

During the interview for my first headship a panel of governors completely floored me with the question: “Have you any experience of the management of change you can tell us about?”

The idea that there could ever be a period in British education when we were not managing change brought a wry smile to my face. Where on earth do you start?

I took a deep breath and started to talk them through some of the countless changes I had needed to manage in every post of responsibility I had held. I probably could have gone on all day but thankfully they got the idea after about 10 minutes – and I did get the job.

I have to admit though that I thoroughly enjoy managing change – at least I do when I sincerely believe that it is in the interests of the young people in our schools and colleges or the organisation that I lead now. Bringing about real improvements and sharing that success with colleagues is true job satisfaction. But that experience has also taught me some obvious truths.

First, sustainable change does not become embedded overnight. I was as delighted as anyone to see the recent Ofsted statistics showing an increase in the number of schools judged to be good and outstanding, but lasting improvement takes much longer than a few weeks following a requiring improvement judgement. 

It takes years of hard work for schools and colleges looking self-critically at everything they do, constantly working to improve the quality of teaching and learning, and recruiting, training and rewarding the best staff

Second, there is an opportunity cost to constant change as we have seen with the continuous and piecemeal changes to our qualifications which have taken place each year. Everyone is confused; parents, students and employers have no basis to compare results achieved by one cohort of students with those who have achieved the same grades in the previous year; teachers are at a loss as to how best to prepare their students for the forthcoming exam because the meaning of a particular grade in terms of what a student knows, can do and understands is no longer clear.

Third, however laudable the changes are, the imperative of the electoral cycle never allows them to be implemented for long enough to allow a valid evaluation of their effectiveness.

Last, you have to take people with you, show them why the changes are necessary (by drawing on objective and reliable evidence), and give them the tools and support to make the process a success.

This is why there is such a pressing need for a longer term vision to be put in place for our education service in England. Many of the highest  performing jurisdictions have a long-term plan for education provision which enables them to achieve a degree of stability that does not exist in this country. If those countries can establish a degree of consensus which crosses the political spectrum why can’t we?

That it is why we have now launched the Great Education Debate, which I wrote about in SecEd in March and which was featured in last week’s edition (The Great Education Debate, SecEd 358, September 19, 2013). At the launch event we started to tease out the many questions that need to be answered. Now it is the turn of you, the readers of SecEd, to join in.

The website (see below) is live and already contains a number of contributions about the topic we are currently debating – the purpose of education. There are questions to debate and discussions to join and various events planned. Everyone needs to join in – teachers, parents, students, governors, employers and everyone who has a stake in education. Only then will we be able to get away from a culture of piecemeal and constant change and uncertainty to one where the profession is genuinely able to play a full part in creating the first class education service we all want.

  • Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk

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