Let our schools set their own priorities

Teachers today are often achieving spectacular results, says Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine. Recently we have seen the start of an interesting debate about homework. Since it began, I have had a number of conversations with headteachers. These conversations have underlined the extent to which homework is only one of a range of inter-related issues about the way schools are run, the relationship between teachers and pupils, and the relationship between teachers and parents.

As presented so far in the media, the debate has been pretty shallow. It has focused too narrowly on the issue of quantity, rather than quality. The wider issues have been crowded out. We need to remember that homework, however important, is not an end in itself. What really matters is to use homework, and the other means at our disposal, in the continuing battle to raise educational standards.

The good schools set homework. They have the powers to do so. They have been doing so for as long as anyone can remember. And they are determined that children should carry out the homework that is set. If children fail to live up to reasonable standards in their homework, then they are expected to make good the omission. There are penalties for failing to do so - including detention periods over lunch, or after school. There are a range of other disciplinary checks. Where the children do not co-operate within the framework provided by teachers, then parents will be involved at an early stage.

One only has to look closely at our schools to appreciate that in every part of the country, from the most prosperous areas to the innermost cities, there are excellent headteachers, with motivated staff, running first-class schools. But, to be sure, not all achieve these standards. And the standards in question do not simply relate to homework.

New research which the Government published a few days ago helps to confirm a common-sense proposition: schools which achieve excellent results tend to ensure that their pupils do more homework than other schools. But it also showed that the best schools enable their children to spend time outside classroom hours doing other things: sport, music and drama, engineering clubs and chess groups, Scouting and community service.

The researchers found a link, too strong to ignore, between high achievement and the extent and range of extra-curricular activities including homework. The Government has immediately responded to that finding by backing pilot projects in 12 schools to enable children to engage in just those sorts of activity. The projects are all different and respond to the particular needs of the schools concerned - primary and secondary, and in every part of the country.

It is for the schools themselves to decide how the money is best spent. The sole criterion is that the projects should lead to measurable improvement in children's learning. We have asked each school to say how it will measure the impact; and then we will feed the results back into the system, so that every school can benefit from their experience.

There is an important principle here: namely, that the school itself is best placed to determine its own priorities and achieve improvement.

It is right for central Government to set the overall framework for education: a national curriculum, with national systems for assessment and reporting results to parents. But the achievement of higher standards will only happen if individual schools, and all the individual teachers in those schools, work to make it happen.

Over the past 10 years more and more power has been devolved to schools in Britain to allow them to make their own choices: about budgets, staffing, admissions, buildings, maintenace - in fact, every area of the school's life.

Schools have hugely welcomed this extension of their autonomy; and there is no question that they are doing a better job of allocating resources than when decisions were taken for them by officials in local education authorities.

It is worth stressing how different this situation is from most other countries. In the rest of Europe, indeed in practically every other country of the world, school budgets are still controlled by bureaucrats in national or local government. We have been brave enough to trust schools to manage themselves, and the results show that this was right.

The Opposition seems intent on reversing these achievements by increased central prescription. They would put officialdom back in control of the detailed running of our schools. They would stifle parental choice, forcing all schools back into the mould of dull mediocrity.

How can anyone seriously believe that local authorities - authorities that allowed our schools to deteriorate over very many years, authorities that have failed adequately to monitor what is happening in their area - should actually be put back in charge of a process which in their hands leads only to decline?

Too many local authorities have become defensive of their performance to the point where they cannot or will not act to correct glaring deficiencies in bad schools. They defend unacceptable under-performance in their schools because they know it is symptomatic of their own unacceptable under-performance in many areas.

The way forward for schools is quite different. It is to drive up standards within a framework of public accountability - by giving schools and parents better performance data derived from external inspection and sound national assessment systems - and then leave the rest to the teachers.

We have set the targets we want to see nationally; now we should look to our teachers to deliver them.

And the same applies, surely, to parents and pupils. Do we really need to specify precise details of their lives - how many minutes of homework, even what time each child should go to bed? Is this not an insult to the personal responsibility of children and parents? I suspect that there are few who really want to see such a rebirth of the nanny state, in which ministers aspire to take over the role which a good parent would expect to play in the development of their child's moral and social responsibility.

I have no doubt that the maximum discretion in the hands of the teachers - the maximum responsibility where education is actually delivered - is the right way to go. We cannot expect our teachers to pick up the pieces where local authorities have failed to exercise their proper responsibilities.

But what is clear is that everywhere in our society, against every type of socio-economic background, our teachers today, both men and women, are often achieving spectacular results. Where problems still exist, the problems lie overwhelmingly in the quality of leadership in certain schools, and in the quality of local policy-making and administration.

Education is about more than prescription. In homework, as in preparation for life, it is quality not quantity that matters. And that means trusting the professionalism of teachers and the responsibility of parents, not imposing a central diktat.

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