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Listen to the people actually doing the job

Peter Miller sees pitfalls on the road to change which only those in the profession can help Blunkett avoid. Tony Blair's lecture at the London Institute shows that the Labour party is now trying to move on from the issues about the structure of education. This is laudable, but there are pitfalls.

Mr Blair says that we must get away from the culture of blame and should avoid government "dictatorship" over the education system. I must agree with these sentiments but at the same time point out that he seems to be attempting a level of detail in his prescriptions which is not supported by true knowledge or understanding. Some of his unsupported assertions would be severely castigated by any teacher of GCSE history.

He slips into a dangerously patronising mode when he tells us that there is a place for whole-class teaching, group work and individual tuition. Does he seriously think that any member of the teaching profession is unaware of this?

He also seems to have swallowed the notion put about by the Government that published performance data put appropriate pressure on schools in difficult circumstances and less on those in privileged areas. Mr Blair unfortunately betrays a lack of awareness of the realities of working in schools in deprived areas. It really is not so much that teachers have low expectations of their pupils, but rather that they are sometimes overwhelmed by the cumulative effects of their pupils' multiple deprivations. Support, not pressure, please.

The mentions of teacher appraisal in the speech also give rise to concern. Apparently Mr Blair sees appraisal as part of the legitimate pressure which should be exerted upon schools. Appraisal was always supposed to provide support, rather than pressure. Further, in reference to the "expert teacher" idea, Mr Blair names "outstanding results in appraisal" as one of the features of these paragons.

How does he know? Appraisal reports are confidential to the appraiser, appraisee and head teacher. And to suggest that these super-teachers get "top marks in school inspections" betrays a lack of understanding of the Office for Standards in Education process. The Handbook for Inspection and OFSTED's training make clear that teaching and learning are being inspected, not teachers. OFSTED lesson observation forms have no facility for even recording the name of the teacher on them.

David Blunkett, the Labour Shadow Education Secretary, has performed well at conferences, and both he and Mr Blair have given the impression of listening to the professionals. There is, however, a very serious danger of their losing credibility for their positive measures such as attention to primary education, a reform of 16-19 courses, a General Teachers' Council and proper training for headteachers (and deputy heads?) unless they can show that they understand what is actually going on in schools.

The gravest danger, however, must be that Mr Blair would seek to continue the Government's political over-interference in the detail of education provision, despite all the advice he has received. Surely a healthier model of governmenteducation system relationships would be along the lines of good governing bodyhead teacher relationships, where the governors set the overall policies after consultation about what is realistic and manageable, and then let the leaders of the school get on with the job, subject to proper monitoring.

Many of us in education wish Mr Blair and his party well in their search for a sound education policy. We hope that they will really listen to the people actually doing the job so that they can get it right.

Peter Miller is deputy head at Wrenn School, Wellingborough, and vice-president elect of the Secondary Heads Association.

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