Ministerial diktat will stifle heads

Reference to the National College for School Leadership as the "Sandhurst for heads" is looking increasingly inappropriate. The Army, a disciplined service with a single national purpose, would never tolerate the sort of dictation from Whitehall about the training of its leaders now considered appropriate for the NCSL.

In 2000 when the college was first set up, four pages of guidance from David Blunkett on what it was to do was not out of place. Now, after a 31-page critique of the college's performance, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has issued a 16-page instruction manual. This details stifling levels of official oversight.

There is to be a new NCSL "gatekeeper" unit in the Department for Education and Skills to keep government focus in and distracting ideas out. The college will have "weekly informal meetings with department officials" and "monthly formal KITs". This is thought to mean "keep in touch" meetings rather than inspections of bedrolls and mess tins. Ministers also will personally "stocktake" the college once a term - maybe a shortfall in college bar-takings is what is really causing concern.

This is not a spoof. And what this Big Brother surveillance says about the purpose of official school leadership training - and the extent to which ministers are assuming operational control of education - is no joke either. The silver lining may be that in future it will be clear who is to blame for shortcomings in the preparation of headteachers. But it would be as well to remind ourselves that maintained schooling is not a national service. The NCSL may be the Government's creature but heads and schools are not. The law devolves specific roles and powers to heads, the local authorities and togoverning bodies which reflect the stakeholders in each individual school.

For very good reasons it is they who decide how to exercise those powers to "promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils" for whom they are responsible, not Ms Kelly or the doorman at the department.

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