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Don't rush to walk the plank

David Hart takes issue with Professor Michael Barber's blueprint for rescuing failed schools, outlined in the TESGreenwich lecture.

Michael Barber has achieved a well-earned reputation for a great deal of challenging thinking since he became professor of education at Keele University. His TESGreenwich lecture contained many positive suggestions on raising standards, but his position as an adviser to David Blunkett makes it all the more important that we should weigh very carefully the practical implications and the long-term consequences of the more radical proposals. It is unfortunate, therefore, that some are open to criticism on both counts.

Indeed, I would start by challenging one of his basic assumptions. The idea that people in education tend to shy away from serious and professional debate about failure, or that they are complacent in the face of Office for Standards in Education statistics on poor teaching, is frankly out of date.

Every "turn of the competitive screw" introduced by the Government has required schools to concentrate more and more of their efforts on pupil recruitment and parental satisfaction. No school can afford to ignore the need for better results or the damaging consequences of poor teaching.

Perhaps Michael Barber's somewhat pessimistic appraisal of current attitudes to failure led him to put forward the set of specific proposals outlined in his lecture. Nevertheless, whatever may have been the motive, the fact remains that several would have an extremely worrying impact on staff, parents and governors, let alone the future relationship between OFSTED and schools.

His general strategic steps to promote improvement are well worth supporting, for example targeting some of the enormous cost of OFSTED at weak schools, releasing the result of the general benefit of all establishments, and placing greater emphasis on validated self-review. But the following specific ideas have not been "thought through". Indeed, some could be as damaging as the disease they attempt to cure: * OFSTED reports are not designed to identify individual poor teachers, nor is their time-scale appropriate for this purpose. The use of an OFSTED visit to identify weak teaching and to launch competency procedures would imply strongly that a school's management is not already aware of the situation as well as the need to take urgent action.

OFSTED inspections are regarded already as too threatening. Michael Barber's suggestion that inspectors should have the power to prepare confidential reports on poor teachers would change dramatically the climate surrounding the inspection process. It would remove it even further from the ideal model, which is one of self-review backed up by external visits on a far less frequent basis than every four years.

It is not the truly incompetent teacher who causes the really difficult "management headache". He or she can be identified readily and dealt with firmly. It is the teachers performing below par who presenta far more intractable problem. Michael Barber says nothing about them as acontributory factor to inadequate standards.

I fear for the future relationship between schools and OFSTED if this proposal comes to fruition. As it is, there is work to be done to improve the inspection process. It should not be used as a weapon with which to beat heads, deputies and teachers, otherwise we can kiss goodbye to any real OFSTEDschool co-operation in the future.

* To threaten all and sundry with closure, in the case of continuing failure, is to launch the school on a sea of uncertainty.Of course, heads and their senior colleagues need to address the problem of under-performance. Procedures exist for that very purpose. They should be used to cope with those members of staff whose quality of teaching must be improved, whether they exist in successful, struggling or failing schools.

Parents could be beset with real transport difficulties where schools are closed. Other schools may not be able to cope with the influx without substantial capital help and the pupils themselves, as Michael Barber recognises, could be lost to the system by voting with their feet for a life of truancy.

What about the staff, both teaching and support? Do they all have to walk the plank, or is it presumed that the senior management are the only people to fall on their swords and fail to obtain alternative employment?

Teachers' associations are in the business of defending their members by all the legal means at their disposal. It really should not be a surprise if they view this proposal with hostility.

* Professor Barber suggests that an alternative remedy is to close and re-open the school. This is a better bet, but it is based on some risky assumptions. The idea that all the logistical steps can be taken during an extended summer break is optimistic in the extreme. New governors and high-calibre leadership, as required by Michael Barber, do not grow on trees. The staff can apply for jobs in the new school, but what guarantees have those people, including members of senior management, who may not be to blame for the closure decision?

The legal implications of both types of school closure are a potential minefield, not least in the areas of damages for breach of contract or compensation for dismissal.

Professor Barber really provides the answer to his own question about alternative solutions by referring to Highbury Quadrant School in London. This, and other examples, show that improvement can be achieved without forcing parents, pupils, governors and staff to go through the traumatic processes suggested in the TESGreenwich lecture.

In many ways, the Government's highly fragmented education system prevents the deployment of talented leaders for the benefit of weak schools. There is no method by which high-fliers can be identified and transferred to other schools to best effect. We are, therefore, faced with the problem of improving the present process, by which schools are monitored and inspected and encouraged to take positive action to raise their own standards. Michael Barber's lecture gives several excellent pointers which are well worth pursuing: * create a national climate of school improvement. The school effectiveness concept is already firmly established and widely used. If heads and their staffs could be freed from the excessive grinding workload, produced by the Government's reforms, they would have more time to devote to self-improvement.

* spread good practice in areas such as target- and objective-setting, both on an overall establishment and an individual basis. This should have been achieved via the appraisal system, but the Government's attitude to funding has "shot its own national scheme in the foot".

* establish robust value-added measures for all key stages and at the GCSEA-level interface. Crude league tables will never be accepted. The value-added approach is the only one likely to win approval, and then pre-eminently as an internal management tool.

Michael Barber chides critics for offering no alternatives and for tolerating failure. I cannot speak for other organisations, but this is certainly not true of the National Association of Head Teachers.

His lecture was thought-provoking and focused on an issue which has to be aired. Unfortunately, in the process, he allowed himself to be lured down routes which contain too many obstacles to make them either viable or advisable.

The debate must go on but I hope it will be along positive lines based upon improving current procedures rather than introducing radical new methods, which will not achieve a consensus.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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