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The first line of defence against failing schools

Innumerable parallels have already been adduced, and will no doubt continue to be drawn, between the disciplinary problems that have beset the Ridings school in Yorkshire, Manton junior in Nottinghamshire and Hailesland primary in Edinburgh. Unfortunately most of the parallels have been of the increasingly despairing and desperate kind: o woe is the state of our schools and our pupils. Readers of our 25 Years Ago column (page two) will reflect that there is nothing new under the sun.

Perhaps the real lesson is not to be found in the allegedly collapsing fabric of society but in the rather more obviously collapsing fabric of local government, at least as it appears south of the border. Indeed teachers and general observers in England must be asking themselves the question: who governs? Governors, local authorities, government, parents, unions, all appear to have been helplessly thrashing about in the educational market-place. The failure at the Ridings may confirm for some that the market is a smooth operator, raising up the excellent and casting out the weak. But it is one thing expecting teachers and schools to be competent and effective, quite another to demand superhuman efforts.

The culture of "blame the child," sadly, is all too often the knee-jerk response to the failures of management and governance which appear to be the hallmarks of these three schools. Nobody is denying that schools, as reflections of society, have their share of miscreants, the difference now being that governors and teachers south of the border are increasingly at loggerheads over what to do. The climate of parental rights, teacher resentment and league table profiles represents a potent and paralysing brew if allowed to bubble away unchecked.

Part of the answer may be to revive and energise that derided old warhorse, the local education authority. For, if anything distinguishes the Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Edinburgh situations, it is the role of the respective councils. Although some of the Hailesland parents may feel that Edinburgh did not act quickly enough, its response in sending in a hit squad on the first working day after the parents took their case to the press was as lightning compared to the pace adopted by its counterparts in England. In Scotland, education authorities have kept most of their authority and have not been weakened by rival power centres in the form of governors and opted-out schools.

There may be resource issues involved in some of these cases but that affects all schools. It is therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that the failures are failures of management, be it at local authority or school level. Indeed, in the other case where Edinburgh had to take action (page three), that was precisely the conclusion that was reached. We trust that this has been a central issue for the Scottish Office's wise men whose report on "failing schools" is due shortly.

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