A festive fortnight in education

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

Around this time of year, events normally take a turn for the surreal, but the mandarins at the Department for Children, Schools and Families really took the biscuit in the build-up to Christmas when they decided to issue a pamphlet warning families of the domestic dangers associated with festive fun.

What on earth were they thinking? Surely any decent spin-doctor could have predicted that this would be meat and drink to the right-wing press. With a sense of inevitability, the Daily Mail screamed: "Parents warned not to 'hang baubles on Christmas tree'" and the rest of the health and safety-cynical media followed suit.

Quite what ministers and civil servants hoped to achieve by issuing such fatuous advice - insights included cautioning parents that they should avoid stabbing themselves with scissors while assembling toys - is anyone's guess.

The department also took a hammering from The Daily Telegraph when the newspaper revealed that the collective documentation annually sent to headteachers from their public sector masters is more than twice as long as The Complete Works of Shakespeare. (The story claimed that 6,000 pages of notes and documents come across heads' desks, while the Bard's entire output was a mere 2,500.)

These statistics were like manna from heaven to the National Association of Head Teachers, which has been forever warning about the burden of bureaucracy. Mick Brookes, its general secretary, pointed out that this was a key reason why so few teachers want the top job.

The National Union of Teachers said the bureaucracy endured by heads and teachers was the main reason behind another figure disclosed over the festive period. The Tories said the annual average number of sick days per teacher had increased from 5.1 in 1999 to 5.4 in 2007.

The Conservatives proceeded to give ministers another kick when they issued figures, garnered through the nifty use of the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that schools in England call in the police more than 7,000 times a year. Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove could barely conceal his delight as he commented on the "very worrying" state of security for both teachers and pupils.

The only problem with this issue is that there are more holes in the Tories' argument than in a lump of gruyere on a festive cheeseboard. Take, for example, the fact that there are 21,000 primaries and secondaries in England: surely it ought to be cause for celebration that there are so few occasions when it is deemed necessary to call the cops?

Also, Mr Gove handily forgot that just about every research exercise that looks into this issue concludes that schools are more often bastions of hope than denizens of illegality. Take, say, Robin Alexander's interim Primary Review of 2007, which claimed that primary schools are increasingly seen as havens while the rest of society crumbles.

Another issue that teachers have known about for years was placed squarely in the media spotlight when the Sutton Trust issued a report warning that (surprise, surprise) the presence locally of an academy may have a detrimental effect on the schools around it.

Can it come as a shock to anyone that academies are often guilty of excluding more pupils than their traditional counterparts? And that - maybe, just maybe - they are not collaborating as much as they should in driving up standards in neighbouring comprehensives?

"Academies are in danger of being regarded by politicians as a panacea for a broad range of educational problems," the report concludes. How very, very telling.

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