Blair attacked on troubleshooters

Frances Rafferty

Frances Rafferty finds heads unsure about Labour's stance on failing schools

The president of the Secondary Heads Association has accused the Labour leader Tony Blair of failing to consult the profession over the party's plans to appoint troubleshooting heads to rescue failing schools.

Mr Blair, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, called for tougher new rules for the appointment of heads and a national register of those qualified for the position. He said a successful head could take over the leadership of a school in the same local education authority if it was having problems.

The Labour party also envisages having a pool of headteachers with a proven record to draft into Fresh Start schools (those closed down as failing) and schools at risk.

Peter Miller, president of the SHA, said he welcomed the Labour party's recognition of the importance of a school's leadership team. But he was concerned that the headteacher organisations had not been consulted.

He said: "There could be all sorts of problems parachuting heads into different schools. The governors may not want to release their head and there is also the question of renumeration. It could be very worrying for the future if Labour gets into power. We do not want to go back to the era of John Patten when the profession was ignored."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, was less concerned about the lack of consultation, but said it was essential that the Labour party discuss the details.

He said: "The problem is we no longer have a national education system: we have 25,000 individual institutions organised in a way which makes it difficult for talented teachers to be redeployed." He said an incoming head would need at least a year to turn a school round.

Mr Blair's speech was entitled The Twentieth Anniversary Lecture, a reference to James Callaghan's Ruskin debate which launched the so-called Great Debate in education over standards. The Labour leader used the occasion to set out his pre-election stall. He was talking tough. There will be "zero" intolerance of school underperformance.

Schools will increasingly come under scrutiny, poor teachers will be removed and failing schools will be taken over by new managements, including new governors, or eventually closed.

He said: "One new way forward would be for good well-led schools effectively to take over schools LEAs identify as heading for failure. The head would take on the management and leadership of the combined school and work to lift the performance and esteem of staff and pupils alike."

He repeated from his speech at the Labour party conference that the three priorities for his government would be education, education and education.

He said standards are too low. "The abiding problem of British education is easily stated: we provide excellence for a few instead of the majority, " he said. In Britain there is a deep divide in performance not only between the private and the state sector but also within the state sector.

He said Labour would try to raise standards starting at nursery age, by making a start at providing a place for all three-year-olds. Improved literacy is a major target with the aim of every child leaving primary school with a reading age to match their chronological age.

"Children have different abilities in different subjects," he said. "So we insist the education structure responds to that diversity, promoting different levels and types of achievement in schools, without falling into the trap of re-creating selection between schools."

Mr Callaghan's speech has now been elevated to a piece of iconoclasm - he said he wanted to break into the secret garden of education and make radical changes. According to Professor Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at the Institute of Education at London University, making his own inaugural speech last week, Mr Callaghan admitted failure to make the necessary changes because he was "engulfed".

It was the Conservative party which grasped the nettle and unleashed a turbulence of educational changes, many of which, for example the national curriculum, national inspection, testing at the end of the key stages and league tables, Mr Blair will gladly inherit and build upon.

The fire of this educational passion, however, could soon be dampened in the real world, Professor Barber warns. He predicted that Mr Blair, when prime minister, may have more pressing matters at hand: restless "old Labour" backbenchers, two devolution Bills bogged down in committee, and restless public sector workers.

He suggested an incoming education secretary must have an elevated position within the Cabinet and be encouraged to stay in post to see policy changes through. Mr Blair picked this up in his speech. Whereas Kenneth Baker, former Conservative education secretary, said his move from the Department of Environment was like moving from the manager's job at Arsenal to Charlton, under Labour it will be like moving to Newcastle United.

"While in the case of one or two recent incumbents it is a relief to us all that they fleetingly held the posts, this state of affairs is clearly unacceptable," he said.

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