A blueprint for the future of our education system


After a year-long inquiry, school leaders have published for consultation a vision of what a self-improving education system should look like in 2020 – a vision that consists of six strands.

“You can mandate adequacy; you can’t mandate greatness. It has to be unleashed.” This quote by Joel Klein, former superintendent of schools in New York City, encapsulates the thinking behind a consultation document published by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) this week.

ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System sets out a vision for the future of education in England. It starts from the premise that profound and sustained reform of the education system will not come from outside the profession: it depends on those of us within the education profession taking the lead.

The concept of a self-improving system was described in 2010 in a series of thinkpieces by Professor David Hargreaves. He proposed four building blocks of a self-improving system: clusters of schools, a local solutions approach, co-construction, and system leaders. Since Prof Hargreaves’ papers were published, much has been written and said about a self-improving system. 

This government committed to creating the conditions for a self-improving system and mandated the National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) to oversee its implementation. But the NCTL is an executive body of the Department for Education. It is surely a contradiction to have an executive body of government delivering a self-improving system. 

ASCL’s blueprint is about how we can improve our education system by working together. The blueprint is set of design elements – it is emergent, not definitive.

The commonly understood concept of system leadership has been leaders who build leadership capacity within their own school at the same time as working beyond their school with other schools in their localities. The (former) National College for School Leadership defined system leadership as educational leadership, rather than institutional leadership. Educational leadership includes but is not defined by locality leadership or leadership of groups of schools. We believe the next phase in system leadership is leadership of the education system itself.

There is an important difference between a self-improving system and a school-led system. It is of course possible that a school-led system is not an improving one. It is also possible that a school-led system is self-serving rather than self-improving. A self-improving system is by definition strongly school-led, with the government legitimately responsible for determining the standards and regulatory frameworks for accountability purposes. A self-improving system has secure controls that act as a guard to self-interest. 

Our blueprint is written from the point of view of the future – a future set in 2020. The document sets out to propose a set of actions that the profession can take, that ASCL will take and actions we think the government might take to create the conditions for a self-improving system. 

We believe system change needs to be rooted in a set of principles determined by the values of ethical leadership. Our blueprint therefore begins with a statement of principles that underpin both the vision and actions. 

Quality and equality: A good education for all is a central principle of the blueprint. We reject that any student is defined either by social background or by perceived intelligence.

Intelligent accountability: The highest form of accountability is the individual’s professional accountability for the quality of his or her own work and to the people who the profession serves. In a self-improving system, we believe that teachers and school leaders must be agents of their own accountability. The role of the state is to determine the accountability measures that contribute to a high-quality education for all.

Evidence: There is a need for a strong system for analysing evidence so that it can be integrated with professional expertise to improve the quality of practice and outcomes for students. Both policy and practice should be evidence-informed.

Collaboration and partnership: There is a strong correlation between collaboration and system success. We believe it is necessary to build professional capital and trust among teachers and create the conditions for teachers to work together to improve practice within and across schools. 

Subsidiarity: Decision-making should be devolved to the place closest to students, that is, to schools. This is our preferred definition of “autonomy”. In a system in which subsidiarity is the norm, there must be strong and intelligent accountability. Thus subsidiarity and accountability are twin principles.

Common good: Education is for the common good. A good education creates the social conditions which allow young people, both as individuals and in groups, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily. A good education system builds character and resilience in all young people. We accept that sometimes the imperative for the common good must override subsidiarity – government has a role to play in ensuring that the system serves all equally well.

Through the autumn term, we would like to engage with a wide variety of people and organisations in the education system to test the ideas in the document. We look forward to hearing from SecEd readers.

Education in 2020 – the six strands of ASCL's Blueprint for a Self-Improving System

Teacher professionalism: The shift in the locus of responsibility from outside the school system to within it has meant a significant impact on outcomes:

  • Joint practice development is now the norm – it is evidence-informed and linked to a framework of qualifications.

  • Chartered assessors from the profession work across schools.

  • There is a National Evidence Centre for Education.

  • There is a good spread of Teaching Schools in strategic partnerships with universities supporting advanced teacher training and research.

  • Most teachers now do Master’s degrees and/or are actively engaged in research.

  • The College of Teaching is in its early stages – and gaining status and credibility. It is responsible for teacher standards.

Curriculum, assessment and qualifications: English students have the knowledge, skills and qualities that are desirable globally – the least advantaged young people achieve not only formal qualifications but the qualities that are desirable to employers:

  • There is a broad, nationally defined core curriculum framework in both primary and secondary phases.

  • The framework is determined by a commission for curriculum review which meets every 10 years.

  • A “growth mindset” permeates school communities – there is a wholesale rejection of determinism by social class or perceived intelligence.

  • Ground-breaking research has been undertaken which ensures qualifications, examinations and assessment are fit-for-purpose.

Finance and governance: Schools are now funded sufficiently, equitably and sustainably – a national funding formula incorporating weighted funding for disadvantage has been implemented:

  • Schools stayed in control of their own destiny – where not financially sustainable, they have joined together in federations or multi-academy trusts.

  • Governors are systematically recruited for skill as well as representation.

  • Governing bodies employ paid professional clerks.

  • Financial accountability is ensured through annual independent audit.

  • Finance directors or business managers are now securely established as assistant principals with equal pay and status.

  • There is a mechanism for a school to change from one trust to another or leave a trust.

Intelligent accountability: Intelligent accountability is now a widely understood concept –the highest form of accountability is the individual’s professional accountability for the quality of his or her own work to the people the profession serves:

  • Government has defined a clear accountability framework with a small number of ambitious goals including a nationally determined progress measure – government has committed to stability and the framework has now been in place for five years.

  • The inspectorate has the power to inspect both groups of schools and individual schools – it has moved towards a model that holds partnerships to account for the quality of support and challenge provided to each other. 

  • In partnerships with consistently good outcomes and strong peer-review that demonstrates impact, the inspectorate does not inspect individual schools.

  • The inspection training programme is now highly regarded – school leaders routinely join inspection teams.

Scrutiny and intervention: Scrutiny of performance of all schools is now strong and coherent, undertaken by school commissioners in sub-regional areas – no school is left to drift where outcomes are not secure:

  • The Office of the Schools Commissioner determines the sub-regional areas and appoints the school commissioners.

  • Headteacher boards quickly established themselves as effective and have been reconfigured along sub-regional lines.

  • Where a school is not delivering an acceptable quality of education, the school commissioner uses powers of intervention where the school does not have capacity to secure improvement.

  • Local democratic accountability is exercised through statutory education overview and scrutiny committees – the committee, chaired by the lead member for education in a local authority, has the power of call-in of the school commissioner and ultimately the power of referral to the secretary of state.

Strategic planning: Place planning which ensures both the sufficiency and quality of education is now strong and stable:

  • School places are calculated by local authorities using a range of data and local intelligence.

  • Where new schools are needed, the case is made to the school commissioner and invitations to tender are published.

  • There is a single commissioning process for schools which is improving the quality of local education provision.

  • The local authority retains the statutory responsibility for sufficiency of places and the commissioner is responsible for quality of provision.


  • Leora Cruddas is policy director at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information
If you would like to respond to the ideas in this article, email blueprint@ascl.org.uk. For more information on the blueprint, go to www.ascl.org.uk


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