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Education is about people, not systems

In 1993, I chaired the Birmingham Education Commission, set up by the city council "to produce a clear vision for the education provision in the city for the future". There were serious problems in Birmingham at that time. Dissatisfied with what they were getting, 13 schools opted out of the local authority in one year, with more threatening to follow.

We held public hearings and witnesses panned the city for many reasons, from spending too much on prestige projects not connected with education, to lack of support for what schools were trying to achieve. In a report entitled Aiming High, we made 25 recommendations, reconvening two years later, in 1995, for a second look. There had been considerable progress. Ed Doolan, a veteran local broadcaster, had commented in 1993 that his daily programme was flooded with complaints from parents. By 1995, he was receiving virtually none. Standards of achievement have also risen impressively.

I have watched the city of Birmingham grow in strength. Tim Brighouse's collaborative style was a valuable antidote to the 19th-century model of scourging adopted from time to time by recent governments and Ofsted. It was almost a controlled experiment: Birmingham won the support of heads and teachers, the government nationally didn't.

What is impressive is the dignity accorded to the person, be it pupil, parent or teacher. Education is principally about people, not systems, important though the latter may be for the smooth running of schools. No one can run the lives of thousands of teachers and pupils from afar. Nationally, the message seems to read: "Join our crusad, you clueless bastards," whereas Birmingham signed up the people who were on the spot.

Both Conservative and Labour governments stole ideas from the commission, sometimes mangling them in the process. We advocated, and Birmingham implemented: raising expectations; inclusion; education to move top of the political agenda (especially the improvement of buildings); a big bash on literacy and numeracy; the setting of targets.

We proposed that targets be set by schools themselves, so teachers would be on board, and which covered pupil rights. The targets would be externally monitored, like going to a professional theatre or taking part in a residential field course. Nationally, target-setting was more mechanical.

Three years ago, I wrote in The TES that education had become a Tim Brighouse versus Chris Woodhead ideological battleground: "spirited imaginative Miss Scattergood versus Gradgrind; Beethoven's Ode to Joy versus Handel's Dead March from Saul I In football terms, Brazil versus PolandI But which one would the ref send off? If it's Brighouse, then it's "RIP teaching as a profession: died 1998".

In our 1995 follow-up report, we wrote: "Some city somewhere has to crack the problems of urban education in a demanding and rapidly-changing world, and Birmingham is in a very strong position to succeed." No one has yet cracked it, but the city has shown that putting teachers and children at the centre works, and that's why the city's teachers have kept a crusading zeal that many others saw evaporate.

Ted Wragg

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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