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Dead horses and butterfly brains

Education is clearly at the leading edge of political debate in the current party conference season, but this is something of a mixed blessing. For there is a veritable chasm between the heated hyperbole of politicians and the urgent particularities which today affect thousands of children in schools. As usual, the full impact of such circumstances will not emerge for some years and, in any case, the important issue of cause and effect in education is all too often a matter of speculation, assertion and sheer chutzpah.

In the latter category I would place Michael Heseltine who recently assured listeners to The World This Weekend that the "disasters" regularly threatened at this time of the year by spending ministers faced with cuts in the next financial year invariably "disappear" once the firm-jawed tax and public-expenditure cutters have had their wicked way. To strengthen his case the deputy prime minister cited the "best exam results ever" following the general wailing and gnashing of teeth which accompanied this year's education spending cuts. This was in the same league as the Daily Express which triumphantly pointed to the budget surplus and small class sizes at OFSTED's "worst primary school yet" - Mostyn Gardens in Lambeth - as proving conclusively that money has absolutely nothing to do with educational standards.

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd be tempted to believe that all manner of such diversions are now being quite deliberately flung in our path so as to deflect our attention from fundamental issues about the ways in which the quality of provision is, or isn't, linked to educational outcomes and standards. Indeed, the leaked memo prepared for the Secretary of State warned that "the need to improve standards must not be overshadowed by arguments about the mechanism through which education is delivered".

Yet simultaneously, the Prime Minister was busy distracting the attention of all those who are trying to improve the quality of schools by telling them they should, instead, spend their valuable time debating the virtues or otherwise of opting out. Apart from "dead horses" and "flogging" coming to mind, the PM also appears to have developed a new version of chaos theory. In "seeing no reason" why grant-maintained schools should not decide their own admissions policy or switch from being co-educational to single sex or sell off land and buildings for short-term gain, he instantly puts pay to the needs and rights of most parents and children. He also invites intense instability as the butterfly's wing of a single grant-maintained school creates turmoil and additional expense across a whole area or even region. This kind of addiction to institutional independence for the few again diverts our attention from the urgent need to agree and effect a national strategy which takes seriously the needs of every child and which, therefore, combines high volume with high quality.

To achieve such a system, we need to identify all those elements which support and encourage improvements and good practice, as well as those which do the opposite. How much money is available and how it is spent will be an important part of such investigations. For instance, we need to know more about the impact of larger class sizes. Because teachers are now expected to do more with and for the individual child, especially in assessing and reporting academic progress, then it almost certainly means that having extra children in a class will mean more than, say, 10 years ago. The consequences will also be different in a school located in an area of social and economic disadvantage compared to one serving a more advantaged neighbourhood and there will be significant variations between primary and secondary, and between subjects. Will teacher absence rates rise as the wear and tear created by larger classes bites and there is less preparation and discussion time available? Is this being monitored? Likewise, what will be the cumulative effect of less time being spent by headteachers and other senior staff working alongside, observing and advising less experienced teachers?

It is unlikely that the impact of such circumstances on pupil achievement will be evaluated in any systematic way. Rather, the traditional "sticking plaster" approach so clearly loved by the teaching profession will prevail and further outlandish assertions will be made about the lack of connection between educational achievement and the level or deployment of resources.

Of course, there are other manifestations of political rhetoric flying in the face of either common sense or empirical evidence. One such is the increasingly fashionable macho approach to inspection. Whether in the form of the Prime Minister talking, in threatening terms, of "an inspector calls", or the chief inspector himself almost gleefully exposing (another) "failing" Lambeth school, we are encouraged to believe that in such cases "improvement through inspection" actually means the exciting spectacle of a public execution.

What if, in this instance, Mostyn Gardens primary serves a neighbourhood which needs and deserves a decent school? Schools should be closed when, demographically, they are no longer needed or when, by creating a larger school perhaps, educational opportunities are enhanced. If, however, it is the leadership and management of a school that needs to be improved , then effective local action of an expert and collaborative kind is required. Opting out, so as to create ever greater managerial independence, is exactly what isn't needed.

The recent report - Schools Under Scrutiny - from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, demonstrates that a strong, well-resourced staff development programme and an independent "critical friend" regularly working with, rather than against, the school are needed if schools are to improve and develop. Unfortunately, measures of such an eminently sensible kind, at a human level, are not the stuff of either media headlines or party conference speeches.

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