SSAT 4th national academies conference

Opening remarks on Day 2, as conference chair

Sponsored academies have a fundamental commitment to a set of values that are centred on regenerating schools in communities that have been let down for years by the state education system.  The freedoms enjoyed by academies are largely a state-of-mind, centred on the idea of not being told what to do.

Things have changed so much since our academy conference last year.  Some key policy drivers are with us to stay.  (1) International comparisons mean we can no longer just benchmark ourselves against schools in the UK.  Indeed, some of our parents now have direct experience of other nation’s school systems and can make comparisons for themselves.  (2) The rapid pace of change is not going to go away, within a new political climate of deregulation and permissive policymaking.   (3)  There is an uncompromising demand from the public for good schools measured by absolute standards wherever they are in the country.

Against this backdrop, we as school leaders are continually asking how can we best serve our students and communities – and prepare our students for an uncertain future?  In my mind, this will involve a serious debate about the nature of 21st century education, which will create a great opportunity for school leaders.

The gap in the current policy framework is the professional voice, which needs to be central to the debate, led by principals, headteachers and other school leaders.  It needs to be an independent, professional voice, free from political whim, and one that is intellectually grounded in a secure evidence base.  I spoke yesterday of the need for the profession to develop its intellectual authority, in the same way that the medical profession has.  Evidence based practice is the antidote to political interference in schools.  We should know why we teach what we do, and organise our schools in the way we do, in aspiring to greater ends than 5+A*-C grades, the EBac and the like.  We need to have a serious debate about the ends and means of 21st century education, which would include a debate about the content of the curriculum and how we teach – and how we can ensure that every child thrives.

Yesterday we heard from Professor Barry Carpenter on the subject of special educational needs –and many people were genuinely stunned.  This is evidence based practice at its best.  We’re headteachers, how could we not know all this?  These issues are primarily issues for mainstream schools, as Ofsted tells us that the special education sector is, by and large, better led and managed, with
genuinely personalised education for individual students.  I think we will soon look back on much of what we currently do and how we teach in mainstream schools in the same way.  It doesn’t work for lots of students (or teachers) and yet we carry on doing it, as that’s the way it’s always been.

I’ve always thought you can best judge mainstream schools by how they treat their most vulnerable students. I would contend we have some way to go in this respect.  You often hear that old retort from headteachers – ‘that schools would be such great places if parents wouldn’t keep sending us the wrong sort of kids’.
As Barry Carpenter challenged us –these kids are here to stay and the sooner we deal with reality rather than wishful thinking, we might start doing our job properly.  This will require the profession to think and act differently – but it won’t happen with 3000 or so secondary academies celebrating their freedoms, acting independently or chasing the EBacc.

The SSAT has been in the vanguard of educational debate and improvement in this country for the last 25 years.  This has been a movement which has been about schools and school leaders working together to share excellent practice.  Indeed, the SSAT’s strap line is ‘The Schools Network’.  Academy leaders should be the driving force behind a self-improving school system grounded in evidence based practice. This is the time for us to step confidently forward and occupy centre stage.

This week I was talking in my school to our new recruits for 2011.  You start in education with a burning flame inside you to make a difference.  The best people leading schools still have that passion and commitment to change the world.  As school leaders we need to share what works, questioning our thinking – and getting better and better, crucially, with us driving it, not the centre.    The question then is, how can we sustain ourselves and our organisations in this new reality? (intro to Andy Whittaker, author of The Art of Being Brilliant

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