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Nothing new in innovation

Ministers have called on schools to be more innovative, but what headteachers really need is more flexibility, argues Carol Adams

Innovation is the new buzz word. But is innovation always a good thing? And surely successful innovation will come with evidence that change will be for the better.

The Government is urging schools to reconsider how they organise lessons and to adopt new approaches to teaching and learning. Working together is to be encouraged through school federations. And effective schools will gain extra freedom to adapt the curriculum, through so-called "earned autonomy".

Yet innovation is not that new for schools, which often have to adapt to meet their circumstances. Small, mixed-year primary schools developed creative solutions to deliver daily literacy and numeracy lessons when the standard version could not be applied. Interactive whiteboard technology has prompted creative new teaching techniques.

Teachers who have had encouragement, time and resources to do things differently, for example in education action zones and under the Excellence in Cities scheme, would certainly like more such opportunities.

Not surprisingly, some teachers are wondering whether the proposals are simply new impositions rather than offering opportunities to exercise professional judgment. There is a real opportunity to use this new flexibility to tackle some of our schools' deep-rooted problems.

Standards have improved in recent years, but there remains a long tail of underachievement. Too many pupils still become disaffected. Their needs are not met by the system and many do not want to be in school at all. Everybody suffers as a result.

But teachers' hands are tied. The curriculum remains too prescriptive and narrow. Dealing with constantly challenging behaviour makes it harder to teach those pupils who are motivated. And pressure to perform makes it harder to devote extra time to bring challenging pupils on. Teachers feel they simply have not got the flexibility they need to offer a truly inclusive education.

Yet if innovation means rethinking how we address these issues, teachers will listen. They have close knowledge of what works for learners and this should be the acid test for innovative practice. They also have a clear view of the parameters.

For a start, they want schools to be judged by more sensitive measures of achievement than the current narrow test and examination targets. The assessment regime discourages collaboration between schools, even though such partnership is vital if best practice is to be shared and nurtured.

Second, there is inspection. The importance of regular external evaluation is widely recognised but should be a progress check not a check on progress. The current system still leads too many schools to interrupt their development to spend months preparing for an Ofsted visit - and recovering afterwards.

Third, is the funding question. The Chancellor has promised further cash increases. Every headteacher longs for a steady stream of investment, but also wants to see it distributed in a more coherent and equitable way, which helps them make longer-term plans.

And finally, there is the issue of time. Teamwork is important to teachers. They want to work with colleagues to improve their pupils' learning. Such collaborative enquiry allows them to reflect upon their own teaching, to learn from each other and to study research. But all this requires more time and less pressure. Proposals for support staff to provide administrative and classroom assistance could make this a real possibility.

Despite teachers' concerns about the role of support staff, there is a real prospect of a consensus which will lead to workload reduction, more resources and greater autonomy. But the ministers must also listen to the evidence of the need for more sensitive assessment linked to a more flexible curriculum. There should be more value-added formative assessment as a counterbalance to crude league tables.

Schools go through different cycles of development. Once basic standards have been achieved there should be a proper recognition for professional trust and autonomy within a transparent system of accountability. The current innovation debate offers a real opportunity for systemic change. But as a teacher remarked recently: "The last thing we want is another chapter for the manual on how to prove how innovative we are."

Carol Adams is the General Teaching Council England's chief executive

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