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Editorial - Missing rungs on the ladder can be dangerous

You know what they say about policemen. Well, if the government has its way, it won't just be bobbies on the beat who look ever younger; even the senior ranks will be filled with graduates fresh from nights out in the student union.

The idea of marking out people with a bright spark and a whiff of potential before they've got a firm footing on the bottom rung of the professional ladder is not unique to the police, of course. The Army has been at it for years, with fresh-faced second lieutenants nominally in charge of grizzled staff sergeants. And now it's the turn of the education sector.

It will come as a relief to the staff sergeants of the staffroom that this is happening not in schools this time but in further education. A few short months ago, John Thornhill became chief executive of The Manchester College, the largest FE institution in the country, after a long career at corporate behemoth BT, and having never taught a lesson in his life (see pages 24-25).

If you are squeamish about privatisation, it might be best to look away now from Mr Thornhill's plans. One of the proposals he is considering is to spin off part of the college's operation as a plc; a bit of The Manchester College floating on the Stock Exchange, ready to buy or sell like... well, like shares in BT.

Regardless of your thoughts on that particular plan, the appointment raises the inevitable question of how desirable it is to have people with no professional background in teaching leading schools and colleges.

We are living in radical educational times, where formal teaching qualifications are deemed irrelevant for jobs in flagship free schools. Even journalists such as Toby Young are given responsibilities and platforms from which to opine about education. (I mean, what do journalists know?)

But if the government really is committed to involving different kinds of people in schools, perhaps the debate over non-teachers becoming heads is ripe for revisiting. The National College for School Leadership has backed the argument and, after its merger into the Department for Education later this year, it will be closer than ever to the education secretary's reforming centre.

But in case Michael Gove is tempted to follow in the steps of the Home Office and allow senior jobs to go to "direct entrants" - be they heads of year or running the whole show - it is worth remembering the last time the experiment was tried. When a former NHS manager was put in charge at the Richard Rose Central Academy in Carlisle in 2008 it was, in short, a shambles.

The problems that caused the arrangement to collapse in little over a term and led the school into special measures - from which it has now recovered - were not all down to the short-lived head. In part, he was a victim of a government pushing through reforms before they had been properly thought through. Sound familiar?

But having no common experience with the teachers he was trying to manage proved disastrous. So, we wish Mr Thornhill all the very best. But until schools have to worry about flotations and annual budgets of almost #163;190 million, let's leave their management to the professionals.

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