For the last four years school autonomy has been at the heart of government policy. Ministers have consistently said they do not want to prescribe how we should teach.
Instead, they want us to operate a self-improving school-led system in which school leaders and teachers help and support each other, sharing best practice and working in collaborative partnership, and they have placed Teaching Schools at the heart of this.
They have continuously promoted academy status offering freedom from the slimmed down national curriculum, removing all kinds of regulations and stating instead that they trust school leaders to make the right decisions.
Meanwhile on the back of a recognition that Ofsted inspections have been skewing practice, placing immense constraints on schools, a constructive conversation has begun with early signs of a more proportionate approach which would facilitate a much healthier balance between an appropriate level of autonomy and the necessary public accountability.
Yet the government’s immediate reaction to recent events in Birmingham appears to risk driving a coach and horses through this direction of policy. The policy responses seem to imply a return to centralised diktats about the content of the curriculum underpinned by no-notice inspections to monitor compliance.
There is absolutely no doubt that the deeply disturbing Ofsted report to the secretary of state for education needs careful and calm consideration outside the frenzied limelight of the media and party politics.
We all have every reason to want to maintain the proud record UK schools have of promoting harmony within our multicultural society and the ethos and values that underpin our schools. It is our profession that upholds those values and will find the sustainable solutions to immediate challenges.
For all of these reasons, another immensely important piece of work needs to take place to define what exactly the characteristics of a “self-improving school-led system” are. If such a system is to be genuinely school-led then we as a profession must take hold of the agenda. The government recognises that it can create the conditions for a school-led system, but only the profession can deliver it.
That is why ASCL has launched an inquiry into what such a system might look like. We intend, after extensive and wide consultation, to produce a blueprint.
We want to look at what successes there have been so far, what the less successful initiatives have been, what recommendations we can pass to the current and any future government, and what recommendations we need to direct specifically at school leaders. The matters we need to consider reach to the heart of our professional activity.
We must shape how the system organises itself so that all schools can support each other and that all school staff have access to the highest quality of professional development.
We have to get to a place where an evaluative self-critical culture pervades our education, in which professionals are empowered to innovate, take risks and learn from mistakes. There is no place for a deficit model which finds fault and apportions blame.
Continually striving to improve further the quality of education we provide is a basic principle underpinning such a system – a commitment to which everyone with a stake in the system signs up to.
In the context of such a transformed culture we must redefine the role of government and middle tier bodies. The government must recalibrate its relationship with our profession, vacating the space to allow the next stage in the development of our education system to emerge. And the profession of school leaders must step forward as leaders of the education system. This is the next stage in system leadership.
We invite SecEd readers to take part in this consultation and give us your answers to the questions which you can find in our consultation document (at http://bit.ly/1jwB7mH).
Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk