SIMS Annual Conference 2014 – Keynote

SIMS2014OpenThe SIMS annual conference welcomed over 260 delegates this year – from Local Authority guests to Schools/Academies and Support Units . This is a significant increase on previous years, and continues the growth of the event – which also now also includes an array of Partners, leading Educational Professionals and private individuals. We opened with a keynote from Brian Lightman from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) – the subject of this first “mini-series”.

The keynote revolved around a central theme of the world of Education being in a time of unprecedented challenge – whether you looked at schools, leaders, teachers, curriculum or assessment. However, this was not your media “doom and gloom” view – instead taking the perspective of this being a time of immense opportunities, and focused instead on how to take those opportunities. This was about how “we” need to inspire, and his view that progress was to create a “self-improving school led system”.

Challenging times for Education…
So where are our challenges? First off – we have the level of simultaneous policy reform. Whether this be the curriculum, qualifications or the whole School vs Academy system and now free schools – the UK education system has never seen such a sustained rate of change. Combine this with the challenge that some of these are for Sept 2014 – how can teachers plan schemes? We also have the changing of SEN codes, and recording/reporting/integrating those with learning challenges to ensure no child is left behind.

So, let’s take a step back and look at the contexts to investigate – and remember, this is not about sitting and wringing hands at the challenges and problems. The media are too quick to jump on the challenges of the “Education System” – we need to look for the opportunities to unlock potential in the next generation. Not surprisingly, policy changes feature highly here – not least because since the Conference, we have had a change in Secretary of State for Education. A General Election looms on the horizon – and, a number of the changes made by Gove are only being implemented now for the new Academic Year. We will also this Summer, see what impact – if any – has been had on Exams and Qualifications following the debacle with some results last year. In the run up to the Election, there is a need to engage with all the parties to influence their manifestos. Education is still gathering quite an amount of press interest, and all the parties will be vying for attention and votes with their policies and proposals. We need to look early at the relationship between now, the impending changes and the future to avoid the risk of discontinuity and uncertainty.

Global perspective…
We also need to look away from home. We live in a Global society, and more often than not – our “home grown” plans have basis in foreign education systems; take the baccalaureate for example. If we look at society, John Cridland (Director General CBI) has been quoted as saying “a better education could add 8 trillion to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the lifetime of a child”. With figures like that, isn’t it worth investing in our Schools – not only in infrastructure but resources, staffing and curriculum. While we are talking about investment, the “cost” of education has doubled over the past 25 years, is that really a good thing? Of course it is, some would say it was overdue – but is it sustainable? We have a challenging demographic, with an aging population and – in some part of the Country, a “bulge” in early years too. This brings its own investment challenges – there is an existing “pension problem”, which will only add to the potential funding issues. We need to be wiser with investments, and if anything, the growth of Academies and Federations may help with this. As Schools start to gather funding from industry, we are also seeing the early success stories of collaboration… inter school, with “clubbed buying” and shared services; but also the influence of industry on buying power.

If we return to GDP for a moment, we need to take account of our position in the world. The world is changing, the balance of power and the economy. Developing countries are ploughing thousands into infrastructure projects – road, rail, energy and others. What is the “cost” of these, and is it sustainable is one question we should ask, the other is could we match it.

“Life gives us challenges that are really opportunities in disguise.”

Take the following analogy… the story of flight…

Originally, when we “took to the air” and started flight – we developed propellers. As the engine developed further, it reached a point beyond which the engine could go no further. It needed to be re-conceptualized. A fresh start if you like, redesigned from scratch. The result, the jet engine – which took us supersonic and launched us into space.

Is it time for education/schools to do the same? Take a step back, re-assess and re-design? The concept presented by Brian was “towards a self-improving school led system”. The only way forwards, says Brian, is a dynamic, ambitious and ever developing system. Admitting mistakes and learning from these, and not “finger pointing” is a key part of this. Mistakes are part of the learning process, this concept is used in the classroom for students – why can’t it equally apply to staff and the system itself? Information; clear, honest and instant access to detailed data – is a vital part of this process.

So, what would it look like? How can an evolving “system” be effectively regulated – and who is accountable? Information and data should help to guide this, but what actually is the “role” of data?

It is widely accepted that the current governance structure is expensive and that there are consistency issues. Is it sustainable to keep training and retraining “inspectors”? In situations where Schools are graded good…do they need a full inspection next time round? Would a better solution be for the “inspector” to spend a day looking at information and data about progress in the School, before visiting? This builds a process where the Head teacher or Principal tells Ofsted where the school is, supported by data – “evidence”. The next step is dialog to demonstrate the evidence in practice – “show me on a walk around, where this “evidence” can be seen live”. To complete the accountability cycle, from a Chair of Governors perspective, Ofsted are then able to give an independent view of where a School is i.e. validate what a School/SLT are saying.

As it was put by Brian – “Ofsted swoop vs conversation” – an engine and propeller to jet engine moment.

So, taking us back to data – and the evidence part of the jigsaw – what are the opportunities to support schools? Let’s take the MIS – such as SIMS, and all the ancillary support services that go with it…

  • Curriculum planning
    NovaT, timetabling planning. Knowledge, skills, attitudes, not exams. Intelligent use of software to support exciting curriculum. Academies and Free Schools have alleged freedom…but to get the real picture, you need to review the small print of funding agreements
  • Assessment
    Innovative following the abolition of levels. Choices on “assessment systems” are being made at a School level, so there will be variety… how can this be effectively benchmarked? There inevitably will be Schools at the forefront, and schools at the back. There is still the need to track progress and report to parents.
  • Qualification reforms
    Final results, early entry changes. Access to the data, performance tables show first entry, what was the final result?
  • Accountability
    Agents of accountability. Schools hold themselves to account validated by external agencies. Responsibilities are all the way from Senior leaders down to the teacher, including the Head and all of SLT. All need to understand how children are performing in comparison to other subjects. Also, Progress 8 early adoption needs considering.
  • Financial
    Manage budget and projections to inform decisions. Eye watering cuts are being made, and it’s important to consider modelling the contact ratio to keep schools running, and fund the curriculum being planned.
  • Performance management
    Have a coherent plan, and tools to support effective professional development and manage resources.
  • Disadvantaged
    Tracking pupils, no matter their background, and ensuring no child is left behind. Spot trends early, and intervention steps can then be taken.
  • Partnership
    Not the “takeover” culture. Sharing data and culture. Best practice. Stop the gap between those at the forefront and those being left behind.
  • Employability
    Labor market information. Destination of pupils. Develop for careers that exist, jobs that are available rather than a full sector.

In summary, what we are trying to achieve here is to take “the system” from reactive to proactive – and Brain left us to consider that point with 5 “top tips”…

Scan the environment for changes
Partnerships not isolation for involvement and development
Be responsive in a rapidly changing environment
Look at everything from the position of those who will be doing the doing – ie. At a School level
Think about medium and long term trends – not quick fixes, to build sustainable improvement. Ofsted currently look at single year, should this be 3 years? Behaviors and “Year 11 Results” can be done in a year, what about the real future.

Coming next with be a review of the “Year that has been”, followed by a deep dive into “A world without Levels” exploring the Assessment changes which you will now see in the SIMS Summer 2014 release. I will also be publishing an update on “Parental Engagement” – and the combined product set that is Agora, SIMS Learning Gateway (SLG) and InTouch.


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