Leaders sickened by pace of change

Heads must find their voice to offset concerns over the Government's reform agenda, writes Mick Brookes

Without doubt, the ceaseless reform agenda that has been promulgated with an almost evangelistic zeal by this Government is one of the key factors in driving school leaders to the wall.

The National Association of Head Teachers' conference in May further underlined the effect that insensitive driving of reform has had on the lives of school leaders. Research provided by the Schools Advisory Service, with a database of more than 1,500 schools, showed that 38 per cent of headteachers off sick were absent through stress-related illness. Absence insurance premiums for heads look set to rise by 11 per cent next year. Add to this the following facts:

* Hundreds of schools are running without permanent management teams;

* The rate of re-advertisement for headship positions is close to 50 per cent in some areas (not just the inner city);

* The average number of applicants for primary headship are little more than four per school;

* Only 1 in 10 middle managers are converting to headship.

These statistics make it starkly clear why NAHT members are not convinced, as others seem to be, that everything in the garden is rosy. If evidence tells us (as it does) that the head is the most important factor in a successful school, it's easy to predict what will happen to schools running headless.

It is the pace, direction and fuelling of change that needs to be adjusted.

Schools minister Jim Knight's statement to the National College for School Leadership conference, "We need to recognise that our impatience needs to be tempered by your capacity to deliver", gave us all hope - only to be dashed by Alan Johnson's proclamation to "increase the pressure on schools". The mood music must change. We have had our nerves jangled by Schopenhauer, discord and dysfunction, a brief and hope-bringing interlude of Elgar and nowIWagner?

To establish a sustainable agenda, school leaders must find a voice, recover self-confidence and collectively be prepared to stand up for what they believe. Let there be no doubt about the authentic purpose of this call for action: this is not about turning back the clock, this is about rescuing our children and young people from an education system that is in real danger of drowning itself in a sea of data.

School leaders are passionate about their vocation. They dedicate their lives to the service of this nation's children and young people, and have achieved much during the past decade. But many now have serious misgivings about the direction and speed of travel of this current administration.

Most important, there is a growing chorus of support from outside the rarefied atmosphere of the professional lobby. School leaders have no wish to be in conflict with ministers - there is too much to do - but refusal to acknowledge the evidence above will lead to further conflict and a major confrontation. And there is a better way.

For a start, there needs to be acknowledgement that bureaucratic overload is driven mainly by fear. "High stakes" accountability is the main generator of mountains of paper and statistics that disprove other statistics - and this is getting in the way of our core purpose.

Key stage 2 testing alone wastes well over pound;34 million a year, not counting the hours of time spent by schools in preparation, administration and invigilation. There must be a scaling down of the negative, hierarchical view of performance that creates cliff edges of analysis where many schools feel as though they are continually balancing on the brink.


* The inspection process should be reformed so that it has greater recognition of the need for professional development models of school improvement, rather than the current blunt instrument;

* Statistical analysis of pupil performance should be placed in the context of deeper and wider knowledge about prior attainment and individual pupil circumstances that affect progress. What is useful as an internal quality assurance measure is not necessarily helpful as externally extrapolated data;

* Teacher assessment backed by appropriate and timely on-line testing should be the vehicle for judging individual and collective performance at KS2 and KS3;

* The Every Child Matters agenda should be the driving force of education reform. It must be properly resourced and introduced at a pace and in a manner that can be managed by school communities. It should include the ability for children with special needs to be educated in an environment that befits their needs.

* The 14 to 19 agenda must build a solid foundation of mutual respect between schools and the business community. Raising the status of the artisan and releasing cohorts of young people from an irrelevant academic curriculum without returning to a 1950s-style of selection by aptitude will require close partnership and trust between schools and their businesscommunity partners.

* The development of the education service must not be reliant on short-term gains put in place for political expediency;

* Care should be taken that the distribution of funding is both predictable, equitable and sustained so that schools in all circumstances can properly budget for and resource future development.

Implementation of this agenda would lead to an upsurge of hope that would begin to offset current concerns about the recruitment and retention of school leaders. The Prime Minister has dubbed schools as having "the best generation of school leaders ever". Let's now see him put his trust into this statement and hand the agenda back to our schools.

Mick Brookes is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers

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