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Russell Hobby: Owning what is ours

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Russell Hobby has been general secretary of NAHT since September 2010. NAHT represents and protects more than 28,000 school leaders in every phase and context.

Russell is passionate about raising the standards of education. Before becoming general secretary of the NAHT he was a prolific researcher, writer and speaker on education leadership. In this guest post, he talks about the NAHT's education manifesto, 'Owning what is ours'.

In May of this year, NAHT decided to pip the political parties to the post, and introduce our own education manifesto. We called it 'Owning what is ours' because it is very much about the profession taking back control over its own destiny. We believe it is no use simply complaining about political interference in education. Instead, we need to ensure that we eliminate the need for it. This means we need to take ownership of standards for ourselves, talking loudly and clearly about our own ambitions for the education system. In an era of fragmentation and autonomy, we also need to take more responsibility for each other – filling the gaps left by the retreating tide of government expenditure and support. In many ways, this is an exciting opportunity to do things properly. Why would we want government to make decisions for us in the first place?

Commitments and promises, not just demands

The whole point of a manifesto is that it contains a series of commitments or promises, not just a list of demands. As a result, we’ve joined a number of other organisations, including ASCL, the the PiXL club and United Learning, to present some alternative league tables, for example. Many people have been angered by the government’s constant tinkering with the performance measures of schools, including, most recently, the decision to only count a student’s first entry, rather than best entry, at GCSE. So, in keeping with the philosophy outlined above, the sensible answer is to create our own, better performance tables that measure the right things in the right way. You can find them, and find out more, at Over time, these could grow into an independent counterweight to the government’s constant manipulation of the system.

We've also talked about the way we hold schools accountable. The difficulty with school accountability is that schools are accountable in many ways to many different bodies. These bodies are also sometimes accountable to each other so their impact on schools is accelerated and exaggerated as they jockey for position, turning otherwise reasonable expectations into unattainable demands. For example, Ofsted will place a school into special measures on its third inspection in a row at the ‘requires improvement’ grade. However, local authorities are likely to intervene at the second inspection, and governing bodies to intervene at the first. Schools should be accountable, but it would help if they were accountable in a single direction to a single organisation.

Floor standards

One thing schools are accountable for is meeting floor standards – the government's minimum expectation of performance. Not meeting a floor standard triggers intervention (usually forced conversion to academy status), and herein lies the problem. If the standard triggers significant intervention, it has to be set relatively low so as not to throw the system into chaos. Set it too high and you face forced intervention in thousands of schools. Floor standards do, however, seem uninspiring, and belie the ambition and excellence inside the system. We think floor standards have had their day. In our manifesto, we suggest more aspirational goals, with a ‘path of improvement’ for each school towards that goal. Some schools will have longer paths than others, but if a school is on track, it should be left alone.

Although standards of this kind belong to the government, we have also started some work on standards, focused on reading at primary level. We are looking to set some long-term goals around reading for pleasure that belong to the profession, and which inspire people to greatness rather than goad them to compliance through sanctions. It will be interesting to see whether this works better to eliminate the achievement gap than the more heavy-handed strategies typically chosen.

We have a busy autumn term ahead of us, and I expect The Key's researchers will be looking into lots of new questions from members. I've found that people do not mind working hard in pursuit of goals that they believe in and which they choose for themselves. They dislike goals imposed from above, whose meaning and value they contest. Getting busy on our own ambitions is one way to crowd out those imposed goals.


Recommended reading on Key insights

A previous post on Key insights looked at the many directions schools can be held accountable:

Recommended reading on The Key for School Leaders

School leaders can log in to read the answers to the following questions that The Key has been asked about floor targets:

Recommended reading on The Key for School Governors

School governors can log in to read the answers to the following questions that The Key has been asked about floor targets:

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