How are school leaders meant to plan ahead?

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Planning ahead has become impossible for school leaders when so many questions remain unanswered, says Marion Gibbs.

Strategic planning and forward-thinking are essential in education, whether it be at the level of government, examination boards or individual schools. We are all in a time of uncertainty, but for our students and their parents it is important that we have a clear way forward. At the moment I have too many questions to which there are no clear answers.

Until after the General Election we are not certain what AS and A level examinations will look like. The Labour party does not want the new AS uncoupled from A level – but there will only be a few months before the new school year starts. If they win, will they freeze everything and tell the examination boards to resurrect the old AS and A level syllabuses in the 2015 tranche of subjects and run one more year of these exams while they decide what to do? 

Will they even have the power to do that or does it rest with Ofqual? Will the universities really understand the proposed new AS and A level system? Already Cambridge has shown that it has no idea of what the impact on schools will be if they follow their suggestion of entering all students for AS in everything even though it is not part of the A level. 

Will universities realise that a student with an A* in a new science A level, but no separate practical grade, may have done no practical work at all and will need extra support to cope with this at degree level?

Exactly what planning is in place for all those students who are now being obliged to stay in education or training until age 18, but who cannot cope with Level 3 courses? Why are we still so wedded to multiple GCSE examinations when 16 is no longer the school-leaving age? Would a requirement for all to have some certification in mathematics, English, science and, possibly, a language at an appropriate level and then take their chosen options to a higher level make more sense?

The media are full of the need to build more schools, but years ago the concept of a school building in the traditional sense was challenged. If all examinations are to be online eventually (and will they and is this a good thing?) do we need to allow for this? Will students use their own electronic devices or will we need banks of “neutral” ones? How will it all be monitored for “personation” and what if it all crashes? Where are we going to find all the teachers we need? In a time of recession and unemployment teachers are always more easily recruited; once the economy picks up then recruitment and retention become harder. Is the new mostly school-based initial teacher training system working well? How do we know? When will Ofsted be reformed or abolished (wishful thinking)? 

Where will responsibility for careers education and for mental health and wellbeing lie in the future? How much should we in schools and colleges be expected to do and will more external professional resources be made available? Will there ever be a proper debate about what education is for and what are the roles and responsibilities of a school or college, relative to the family, the state and wider society? Young people actually spend a relatively low proportion of their hours each year in school, about a quarter of their waking time, imagining they all have seven or eight hours’ sleep a night. Nonetheless, too often, schools are expected to provide a cure, or take the blame, for a vast array of things.

It was interesting to see that a former permanent secretary in the Department for Education, Sir David Bell, made a speech recently suggesting that politicians and such like should leave education to the professionals. This echoes the Association of School and College Leaders’ and many others’ views. Is anyone listening? I am sorry to pose so many questions – but planning for the future is not easy when certainty and answers are so hard to discover.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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