A heads-first strategy without real freedom

8th October 2004 at 01:00
During my years as an education journalist, I have met some remarkable headteachers. There was the one who patrolled the school bus queue nightly and who took on all the excluded pupils from neighbouring schools. There was another who ferried miscreant children home in her car to cool off for a couple of days because she felt the exclusion procedures were inhumane.

There was the inner-city head who spoke to me enthusiastically and eloquently about turning round a failing school before heading off not long afterwards for a new job in Bahrain. And there was the head who downed two large schooners of sherry before heading into a school lunch of bangers and mash with a group of ten-year-olds.

Most heads do amazing jobs in circumstances which would defeat many of us.

They work 70-hour weeks, turn round failing schools and act as social workers, citizens' advice bureaux and community fixers. So why am I uneasy about the Government's proposal to put more freedom for them at the centre of its strategy for raising standards?

First, it is because they are, inevitably, a mixed bag. The evidence for this is more than anecdotal. The chief inspector's annual report says that leadership is unsatisfactory in one in 20 schools and does not merit the description good in a quarter. No problem, say the ministerial defenders of a plan which will give heads more power over their budgets, assets and staff recruitment and downgrade the role of education authorities. In future, the buck will very obviously stop with heads. So it will be easier for governors to get rid of them. Ministers have clearly never been members of a governing body where the head's word goes. (The phrase used by a governor on our Leadership pages this week is "unbridled power" and that's before the changes kick in.) Education authorities do at least provide a check on the overmighty.

My second doubt is about the conjuring trick which supposedly turns freedom for heads into more good GCSEs in maths and English. The Government is still bewitched by private schools. It thinks that they are successful because their heads are free to run their schools as they wish. It is true that most private school heads would attribute their achievements to independence. They argue that they prosper because they do not have to wade through the minutiae of the key stage 3 strategy and because they can choose how and what they teach. Nor do they have to spend weeks each year training children for national tests. Only about half of prep schools take the tests.

But these freedoms are precisely those which will still be denied to state school heads. Freedom, in government-speak, is about budgets and staffing, not about teaching and learning.

Another vital ingredient from the private school elixir is also missing from the latest offering to state school heads. One of the main reasons for private schools' predominance in exam league tables is their freedom to choose whom they admit. No fee-charging school takes on a neighbourhood's excluded pupils and many turn down children because they have failed an entrance exam.

The Government is in danger of becoming obsessed with heads and neglecting the rest of the profession. Labour came to power in 1997 promising "standards not structures". Increasing heads' powers over their budgets, buildings and staff may alter school structures, but it has nothing to with standards. Setting teachers free from the tyranny of too much testing, league tables and government strategies might really make a difference.

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