Prepare to take the reins

Ministers need to learn to let go, whileteachers need to embrace the freedom, writes John Dunford

The Prime Minister has stated that the next stage of the Government's public service reform programme is to raise standards while empowering front-line workers. If he is serious, and not merely spinning a good line, it will present as much of a challenge to the teaching profession as to ministers.

Tony Blair's change of tone was heralded in the White Paper, Schools achieving success (September 2001), which stated that "we are seeking to emphasise an approach which trusts informed professional judgments and stimulates school-led innovation".

This brave new world of empowerment has started badly, with the concepts of "earned autonomy" and the "power to innovate" stimulating heated debates in Parliament, where the White Paper proposals are being fleshed out in yet another education Bill.

The power to innovate is welcome, but not in a form that gives the Secretary of State the power to decide on the innovations that are to be permitted. Opposition to earned autonomy is not against the principle of greater freedom for schools, but against the proposed statutory autonomies. The notion that autonomy will have to be earned and approved is not only faulty; it also means that some of the country's most innovative schools will be excluded. These are the schools - often working in the most challenging circumstances - where standards are raised by unconventional means.

The identification of curriculum and pay and conditions as the areas in which autonomy can be exercised is a mistake. All schools would welcome greater curriculum autonomy, but almost all want to remain in the national pay structure: schools can already opt out, but only two have chosen to do so. An underlying principle of these powers must be that autonomy for one school is not at the expense of others. Autonomy on pay, for instance, could make it more difficult for other schools to recruit and retain their staff.

If increased autonomy is to be an important component of policy, the Government must discuss it with the profession. Teacher associations could play the same constructive role as on workload. We would have much to say about the way autonomy should be granted and where we would most welcome it.

In secondary schools, for example, our shopping list of autonomies would include: greater freedom to use the Graduate Teacher Programme; a reduction in education authority monitoring; removing the obligation for a daily act of worship; a three-session day to embrace community learning; fewer strings on funding, contracts and the sale of assets; key stage 3 test flexibility; fewer external exams and more responsibility for assessment; setting our own targets; and validation of the school's self-evaluation process, instead of Office for Standards in Education inspection.

Above all, LEAs, OFSTED and the Department for Education and Skills should not be allowed to dictate the means of achieving improvements in schools.

For too long, teachers have been disempowered by the words and actions emanating from the DFES and its agencies. Empowering teachers would have considerable benefits for the quality of education. A self-confident profession would be more creative and more effective. Teachers would enjoy their work more, with consequent benefits for retention and recruitment.

Developing improved accountability is part of the challenge of creating a more autonomous, innovative school system. In leading English Education plc, the Government should follow the principles of good leadership that apply as much to the whole system as to a single school. That requires a strong vision and a team approach to its fulfilment.

A teaching profession that has been subject to prescription for years - that is expected to deliver a national curriculum and testing system - sometimes appears unwilling to accept flexibility when it is offered and asks for implementation guidelines. Similarly, ministers have found it difficult to devolve power, taking years to be comfortable about the directions being taken by Scotland and Wales. Government must learn to resist the temptation to rule every detail of schools' work. Heads must learn how to act as gatekeepers, examining each initiative critically and protecting their staff from those that do not complement the aims of their schools.

There are some positive signs. Following extensive consultation, ministers have changed the potentially over-prescriptive key stage 3 strategy to a useful tool for improvement. Schools have welcomed the high quality resources produced for this difficult age group.

The Government faces a huge challenge in slackening its grip on some of the reins of power. Equally, greater freedom for teachers will bring added responsibility to raise attainment, improve social inclusion, narrow the achievement gap and reduce educational inequality.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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