Education must have a second great debate


Brian Lightman calls for an overarching, non-political, evidence-based debate about the future ?of our education system.

This past weekend we enjoyed an excellent ASCL annual conference with more than 1,000 delegates on the theme of “Positive Leadership”. As our president, Mike Griffiths, said in his address, positive leaders inspire, motivate, energise and unite the team around them.

I recognise, and I said in my conference speech, that staying positive is not easy for school leaders in today’s education climate, with so much uncertainty over the future of the curriculum, qualifications, funding and accountability.

However, I have seen some green shoots of optimism, in that there seems to be a growing consensus, among those people who possess expertise and knowledge, about what needs to happen for the UK to meet the global challenges facing us and our young people, now and in the coming years.

In 1976 Lord Callaghan’s famous Ruskin College speech initiated “the great debate” about the future of our education service. Many of the issues he raised are still highly relevant. Surely it is now time for us as a profession to initiate a second “great debate”, which involves everyone with a stake in education, to build on this emerging consensus.

We need to take stock, look objectively and without political bias at the evidence of what is working and what is not, define and clarify the areas of consensus and set out a vision which will go beyond this and the next Parliament.

We need to do what so many of those high-performing jurisdictions do which is to agree a long-term development plan for the future of our education service which will rise above short-term political considerations and not be driven by the electoral cycle. And to use Lord Callaghan’s phrase we must not tell anyone to “keep off the grass”. Nobody can be excluded or back off from that debate however challenging or uncomfortable that makes the discussions.

We need to hear from the left, the right and the middle; we need to hear from parents, employers, representatives of all kinds of educational institutions and sectors, academics and anyone else with a view. We need to evaluate the properly researched evidence.

At the end of that debate we have to come up with a workable overarching plan with clear success criteria, clarity about how it will be resourced and how our success will be measured in qualitative and quantitative terms. The test of any current or future government or opposition will be their willingness to engage in this matter of national importance.

We are offering to play a leading role, but neither we or any other organisation can do it alone and we are calling on the government to support this and help us to make it happen.

We are inviting everyone who is serious about moving our education service forward to join our great debate. We will facilitate seminars and other activities to take the discussion forward and we will report back on our findings at next year’s annual conference in Birmingham. As positive leaders we will do everything we can to contribute to the solution and we invite all school and college leaders to engage their staff, their leadership teams, their governors, students, and their wider communities in this debate. 

But while we will play a leading and proactive part, it would be wholly wrong for us to monopolise this debate. All parties will have to compromise, listen and take on board the legitimate views of others. And that includes us.

For many school leaders, this year has been one of the most challenging ever. There is no denying that it has been tough and at times demoralising. But maybe, just maybe, if we really can turn this great debate into cross-party consensus on the issues that matter most, we will be able to nurture emerging green shoots into a flourishing, fit-for-purpose, world-class education service.


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