What are your thoughts regarding reform problems and what’s happened in the educational landscape since you stepped down as ASCL general secretary?
It’s been an incredibly challenging year for schools, for a range of reasons. The changes put in place by the coalition government under Michael Gove’s tenure have begun to be implemented and there’s an enormous workload coming out of that, as well as a great deal of uncertainty about the detail of some of those things. In the primary sector we’ve seen further uncertainty over what the new assessment arrangements will look like, and challenges arising from reduced budgets and changes to schools finances. Then there are the recruitment issues, which have been a massive problem. Without exception, every school I’m going to is having difficulties with recruitment. In inner cities and rural areas, they’re all struggling and quite a few have got vacancies. I think it’s less acute in primary than secondary, but still there.
Are you aware of any notable or unusual steps heads have taken to maintain their staffing levels?
The difference between the shortages we’ve had in the past and what we’ve got now is that they’re affecting all levels and all subject specialisms – there’s a real issue with recruiting leaders of the right calibre, as well as classroom teachers at the lower end of the pay scales. One thing leaders can do is try to make working in their schools more attractive. If a school demonstrates a really good commitment to CPD, for example, that will help. Advertising for posts through traditional methods is becoming less effective, but social media is proving to be quite a powerful way of recruiting people, through subject networks, Twitter groups and similar. If people hear that a school is attractive to work in, they might apply.But those are really sticking plasters on the bigger problem, which is that there simply aren’t enough people and still too much negativity around teaching – from media and policy circles, and sometimes parts of the profession as well. It’s incumbent upon us all to talk up teaching and school leadership and tell people what a great job it is.
What do you see as the most challenging development that primary headteachers are currently facing?
One wide-ranging issue is how to make sense of the data that’s currently being used for accountability purposes and what it actually means. We now don’t have levels, and whether you agree with that or not, this transitional stage is incredibly challenging for primary schools. How do you know that the targets you’re setting or your aspirations are the right ones? There’s nothing wrong with data per se; I’m a great supporter of having lots of data and using it to ask questions. The issue is what it means when the goalposts are moving all the time. What people need is some sort of stability, so we can be absolutely clear when saying ‘These are the expectations’ that the data is actually measuring those.
You’ve previously written that “Too much professional expertise has been sacrificed on the altar of accountability.” [See tinyurl.com/lightman-leader] – what are the main issues with primary accountability, and what needs to change?
I’m not underestimating the difficulty of doing this in some contexts, particularly in challenging schools, but you’ve got to take control of your data and assessment. Assessment should be part of the learning process and integrated into the teaching and learning that’s going on. We have to take that back, and not just allow the government to use it for summative purposes. Doing that would give us accurate information about how our pupils are progressing and what they’ve actually learnt, and put us into a position where we can tell our own stories. Ofsted have been very helpful over the past year in trying to ‘bust’ the many myths surrounding what they require. Schools should be going into inspections saying ‘This is what we do and this is why we do it; these are the standards we aspire towards, here’s how we assess and here’s the evidence we’ve gathered’. They have their own story to tell, and the most successful schools are already telling theirs
What’s your view of the National Funding Formula?
As lots of people have said, the problem is that there’s not enough in the pot. It’s the wrong time to try something that will cause some schools to lose out even further. Schools are under enormous pressure, and there’s mounting evidence that they’re really struggling to make ends meet. While I’m absolutely in favour of a National Funding Formula, you can’t implement it without additional funding. Otherwise, we’re likely to end up in a situation where the quality of education in some schools is going to suffer. It’s a change that needs to be made, because funding variations around the country have gone on for far too long, but it has to be funded. And we know there’s funding there – we’ve heard a lot about austerity over the last half decade, but within the last year there suddenly there seems to be money for projects the government feels it wants to support.
What do you make of Justine Greening’s performance as Education Secretary so far?
I don’t think we’ve seen very much yet, but that’s not necessarily a criticism. The last thing we need, and I think she recognises this, is a load more initiatives. We need a period of stability, but obviously I think we’re all disappointed by the grammar school announcement. There’s no evidence that they would help the majority of students. For every grammar that opens there will be a secondary modern – which will affect primaries, in that there’ll be children who are destined to go into a second class system, if they don’t get through into those grammar schools.
What single piece of advice would you give to a recently promoted primary head?
Spend your first term listening to everybody you possibly can about how the school is doing and what needs to be done, and set out a comprehensive plan that will drive everything you do – regardless of what the government announces as its next initiative…