'A complete waste of time'

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Heads are fuming over the latest round of training aimed at improving the assessment of staff performance, writes Phil Revell

THRESHOLD applications had barely cleared headteachers' in-trays when the next stage in the performance management training process began with conferences held up and down the country.

The conferences were the latest stage in the implementation of the performance management process, which schools are expected to have in place by next year. But all was not going well.

"It was professionally insulting," says Brian Cash, who felt his time would have been better spent behind his desk at Westgate school in Bury St Edmunds.

Along with around 300 other heads Brian went to Newmarket racecourse for a one-day training session. Problems began in the car park, where there were no clues as to where in the racecourse buildings the conference was being held.

Once inside there was an introduction which many heads could not hear, followed by a video featuring recently-departed Teacher Training Agency chief executive Anthea Millett.

Mr Cash reports that the video's sound and pictures were out of "sync" and that it drew a certain amount of heckling from an increasingly dissatisfied audience. The heads then split into groups to discuss issues.

"I learnt nothing new," he says. "The role of the external adviser is going to be crucial, but some groups never got around to discussing it. We've had all the paperwork, we could have stayed in school. It's the wrong time of year for this kind of initiative. We have reports, parents' evenings, new intake - the whole thing has been much too rushed."

Chris Green-Hughes, head of Stanley Road primary school in Oldham, had a similarly frustrating day.

"Oh, you mean the day where we all spent the entire lunch hour complaining," she said when quizzed about the conferences. "Complete waste of time."

Ms Green-Hughes was hoping that the training would shed light on the shape of the system heads should be aiming for.

"What we wanted was to be told where we needed to get to," she says.

"But nobody told us what a good package would look like. Instead we had workshops where we talked to each other - it made the threshold training look like an Oscar performance."

Ms Green-Hughes was particularly annoyed that requests to skip some of the explanation and move straight to discussion of the issues were rejected.

"They told us they had to stick to the script," she recalls.

The difficulties with the training are acknowledged by CfBT, the private education consultancy firm that won the contract to co-ordinate and deliver the training.

"It's been a major undertaking, and it's all been done at breakneck speed," says chief executive Neil McIntosh. "In a six- month period CfBT will have delivered around 90,000 training days - 500 per day, seven days a week for the entre period.

"And - given that the training is dealing with a sensitive piece of government policy - feedback has been generally positive."

One of the difficulties cited by CfBT is the range of experience amongst the heads being trained.

Mr McIntosh says: "Some have a thorough and very competent performance management system in place, while others are at the very start of the process. One is in danger of patronising the first group in order to satisfy the needs of the second."

McIntosh's claims about positive feedback are supported by the National Association of Head Teachers.

"We attended as observers and had very few complaints," reports the association's Esther Williams.

She points out that the materials used by trainers made few assumptions about existing levels of knowledge and that heads are a very mixed group in terms of their thinking on the issue. "Some people did feel patronised, it's all down to the skill of the facilitator."

Another problem cited by trainers is the lack of preparedness of some of the heads. Asked about the briefing documents sent out to heads in advance of the conferences one told trainers that she had "thrown the thing in the bin".

"This has come at the end of a very long year," says one trainer. "But some of the points being raised by heads just aren't valid."

Heads have expressed concern about additional duties placed on governing bodies by the performance management process and about the time involved in monitoring staff.

"But governing bodies are doing this now," says the consultant. "They're required to make a judgment about whether heads move up the pay scale." He also argues that heads' concerns about the time involved in performance monitoring is misplaced.

"Are they really saying that their teachers do not at present have one lesson monitored each year?" The consultant, who wishes to remain anonymous, argues that many of the difficulties experienced during the one-day conferences were down to this kind of failure to think through the process.

Another consultant argues that much of the criticism came from heads who were ideologically opposed to the scheme, an accusation denied by Brian Cash and Chris Green-Hughes.

"None of us is opposed to the principle," says Ms Green- Hughes. "Most of us think it will become a really useful tool, but this has all been very badly timed, at this time of year I really needed to be in school."

Delivery of the training for performance-related pay has been a source of concern at the Department for Education and Employment, whose determination to get things right meant that trainers often went into conferences having had last-minute DFEE amendments made to their scripts.

The whole process has been an expensive and high-profile example of the difficulties involved in the rapid implementation of a political initiative.

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