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Farewell to the unit that did it its way

Like many people, I am heartbroken, sobbing at the news that the Department for Education and Skills' standards and effectiveness unit is to be abolished.

In 1997, many of us hoped that under Michael Barber the unit would provide a lead. And in the early days, it did. The transformation of competitive specialist colleges into collaborative specialist schools was a great success. Sadly, when Michael left, and before David Hopkins could make his mark, the apparatchiks got their hands on power - and never let go. The result was a move from a willingness to try new ideas, to an inflexibility which stultified inspiring heads and local education authorities.

Targets epitomised that. The able and caring education secretary Estelle Morris was allowed to sacrifice herself when more intelligent advice would have prevented her paying the price for her predecessor's wrongheadedness.

LEAs were required to agree ridiculous so-called stretching targets which neither stretched the pupils nor inspired the heads and teachers who were magically supposed to realise them. Continuing Trelawney's tradition of justified rebellion, in Cornwall we refused. The department concluded Cornwall's key stage 2 target for English should be 86 per cent at level 4.

This nonsense was maintained despite the fact that around 28 per cent of the cohort to take the test had special needs. This meant that every child without special needs, and half of those with, were expected to reach to the average level of achievement.

But saddest of all was the way the unit behaved towards LEAs and schools just like the bad LEA advisory services of the past. There seemed to be no conception that there was good practice out here waiting to be spread.

No discussion, just "my way". The feeling was that the unit's experts knew more than ours. And how often we heard "Ministers want..." when it seemed pretty apparent they had not been asked. And why the fiction of "agreed" targets when it really meant "imposed"? Worst of all was the lack of trust and the arrogance. LEAs were talked at rather than listened to. The model seemed to be control not partnership, all the more ironic given that LEAs were charged to build partnerships with their schools, which most of them already had. There were, of course, beacons in this, those courageous folk in the unit who ignored the party line, and worked in genuine partnership.

I hope in their next incarnation they are led by people with ears as well as a tongues.

Jonathan Harris was director of education in Cornwall from 1994-2002

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