Panel discussion: what leadership is needed to put social justice at the heart of the curriculum?

The panel discussion at the end of the conference’s first day examined the leadership needed to put social justice at the heart of education. In the chair was former school minister David Laws, executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute. Other panel members were Caroline Barlow, headteacher of Heathfield community school in East Sussex; Dave Whitaker, director of learning at Wellspring multi-academy trust of AP and special schools across the North of England; Christopher Pope, chief executive of the Prince’s Teaching Institute; and Stephen Munday, president of the Chartered College of Teaching.

Dave Whitaker began by pointing out the huge disparity in funding between special schools in different LAs: “a child in one local authority can get £25,000-30,000 pounds of funding; one eight miles away, in another authority, may get £15,000 less. That’s a huge leadership challenge, to the point where the leaders are actually having to make their schools worse – looking at what they know is the right thing for the children, and then choosing what to take away in order to balance the books. And the number of staff available to work with the children has to be reduced to balance the budgets.”

Caroline Barlow began by noting that too many children start school with pre-existing gulfs in their working memory, attention and reading fluency. And those gaps cannot possibly be closed when the specialist staff they need are leaving the profession faster than they’re joining it. We must re-establish teaching as a desirable profession, a respected profession, which values autonomy, develops career-long expertise and has a genuine sense of purpose.

Caroline Barlow
Caroline Barlow

Taking up Dave Whitaker’s point, she said that we have to talk about equitable funding for educational experiences – educational experiences that mean something. Why, she asked, are we constrained by an examination system that has failure baked into it by design, which decrees that some must fail so that others can pass? And an accountability system that creates benchmarks to measure things that sometimes have little to do with the lives or ambitions of those who are being measured?

Education has to come out of the electoral cycle. At the very least, if we could get cross-party agreement on a 10-year plan for funding, accountability and recruitment, we would be able to plan properly. If we have focused collaboration, we should be able to ensure that our children have the chance to grow up as safe and brilliant as they possibly can be. But it needs to come out of that electoral cycle.

Christopher Pope summed up his view on the kind of leadership needed to put social justice at the heart of education: to work to banish prejudice. One of the main restrictions on social justice is prejudice at all levels of society. He gave two examples: a “really decent” subject leader in a challenging school who, when asked if any of the 1500 children in his school were trying for Oxbridge, dismissed the query with “Oh, you don’t know my kids.”

Christopher Pope’s second example concerned limitations on what the children are taught: “I despair when I hear of secondary schools that don’t offer music anymore. How can we believe that we are putting social justice at the heart of the curriculum if we are not even offering our children the option to discover music, or we play the system by repeating the same GCSE English set text five times between year seven and year 11?”

Stephen Munday
Stephen Munday

Stephen Munday began by noting the recent formation of an ethical leadership commission, which has added to the Nolan principles for all those in public life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. In addition, the framework maintains, school leaders should seek to demonstrate:

  • Trustworthiness and reliability
  • Wisdom, based on experience, knowledge and insight
  • Kindness and generosity of spirit;
  • Understanding, a good temper
  • Justice, being fair and working for the good of all children
  • Service, being conscientious and dutiful
  • Courage in working in the best interests of children and young people
  • Optimism, being positive and encouraging.

The Chartered College, which is now responsible for the ethics committee, is clear that it’s up to the teaching profession to do this, not the government or other outsiders. It’s for us to oversee ourselves, and agree that this is the sort of leadership we want and indeed to hold each other accountable for that in appropriate ways.

Broadening the discussion, David Laws raised issues from other delegates. One theme emerging was to question what model of accountability would best support principled leadership for social justice. Dave Whitaker suggested: “we’ve got to make sure we look after our most vulnerable, so the accountability system must really, really get under the skin of what the most vulnerable children do, how they are and what they need to achieve. As it is, working in alternative provision, you get children who work hard towards GCSEs and when it comes to results day, they get scores of ones and twos, which is outstanding for some of them. Then, they’re told that’s a bad grade. So what I’ve got is a school of children getting bad GCSEs. And that’s in the media and all over the place. The parents have to live with that. And I find it astonishing that we’re essentially shaming children.”

Developing the theme of social justice and official targets, David Laws asked whether a principal or headteacher should ignore the EBacc target for their school if they thought it was not in the interest of social justice. Caroline Barlow responded: you do what is best for the students in your school. A one-size-fits-all, ‘this is what everybody needs to do’, completely belies individual nature. It’s absolutely about understanding the students that you’ve got in your school, giving them the greatest possible aspiration and ambition and then facilitating that.

A delegate who is executive principal at a Dutch school pointed to a major cultural difference between the Netherlands and England “in terms of the freedom that you have to create your own decisions, your own policies. And as a result, all the new initiatives you’ve been discussing are then flawed by accountability, the monster lurking in the dark called Ofsted, ranking of schools – it keeps you from doing the right thing. It seems as if you’re firefighting all the time, all these impulses coming from external organisations that keep you from doing the right thing. Is that not the essential question for deep leadership in British schools…that you need the freedom, the time and the space to do your work?”

Chris Pope
Chris Pope

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Christopher Pope: “my daughter’s in university in Amsterdam, and the differences are very striking. For me, the heart of this problem comes back to the politicisation of education in this country. There’s far too much interference by secretaries of state and what-have-you.” He believed that the Chartered College, SSAT and the Prince’s Teaching Institute could all play an important role in “getting education out of the political cycle.”

Another question concerned the multi-academy trust system: does it promote a deskilled style of leadership where heads of schools are often overruled by the CEO or MAT priorities? As a leader of a group of 11 schools, Dave Whitaker noted that his early years as a head in a standalone school were lonely. By contrast, “what I have now within the MAT system is a number of headteachers who absolutely love being part of a collective of leaders who cross-work together collaboratively. They’ve got support. They’ve got challenge. They’ve got the accountability measures in place and they’re trusted to work through them. They’ve got somebody at the end of the telephone to help and support them.

“But also, within this MAT we do have really, really clear schemes of delegation that give local autonomy to the school headteachers and local governing bodies – because we’ve put a massive emphasis on local context. So essentially, as long as the local school is thriving, the headteacher is in charge of that school along with the local governing body. And I think that’s really important.”

Steven Munday thought a subtle variation from the concept of complete autonomy is needed: “agency – not necessarily complete autonomy just to do our own thing regardless of any others. But genuinely to have agency to be able to make a difference in a good and a proper way. And it’s up to us as a profession to move forward with that and confirm that areas such as pedagogy, the ethical underpinnings of our profession, are for us to oversee.”

Sue Williamson concluded the discussion by pointing out that schools cannot solve the problem of poverty, but they do have to deal with the results. “Children that are hungry do not learn. Children that are tired because they are sofa-surfing do not learn. Education is absolutely critical in achieving deep social justice.

“We need to change our world, we owe it to every young person and child. At SSAT we think we need to return to and build on our principles of personalising learning. We need a school-led system, in which there is collaboration, sensible accountability and a focus on personalisation – with, I would add, a national funding formula that is fair. I have been waiting for that for the whole of my life in education. We must achieve it.”

SSAT Members can watch: Deep leadership panel from SSAT National Conference 2019

Your opinion
Do you agree with the observations made by the panel or do you face different challenges in your specific context? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

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