A man with targets but few answers

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Warwick Mansell tries to pin down primary and secondary strategies chief Mark Pattison on the disadvantages of test result targets

Why won't Mark Pattison, head of the primary and secondary national strategies, answer the question? This is the third time, and still there is no yes or no.

Are there any downsides, for pupils, of the Government's drive to improve test and exam results? It is a fair point, given that critics of the "standards" agenda argue that its side-effects range from months' of cramming in primaries to extra resources being aimed at "borderline" GCSE pupils.

Specifically, the TES puts to him schools' use of booster packs for key stage 3 English, published by the strategies, which amount to hundreds of pages of advice on how to teach to the test.

Again, he will not be drawn. "We offer a full range of support to teachers, across a whole range of their teaching activities," he said. "The booster packs are one element."

The strategies were taken over by Capita, the controversial outsourcing firm, last year with a pound;175 million, five-year contract.

Largely unnoticed, this has been one of the biggest privatisations in education, as Capita replaced the Centre for British Teachers, a non-profit making body. Its reach is now huge.

When Capita took over, the Government beefed up the strategies so that they are now the major mechanism by which ministers strive to ensure that their high-profile targets for test and exam results are achieved. Local authorities are now being held to account for the work they do with schools on raising scores.

Mr Pattison now also oversees the School Improvement Partners scheme, through which ministers are attempting to scrutinise, and improve, the results of every department in every secondary.

It looks an ambitious agenda, and some of the claims made in the strategies' five-year plan, put out with no publicity just before Christmas, appear daunting.

The document promises that the strategies will "raise levels of achievement for all pupils"; "address under-performance at national, local authority and school levels"; and "create a new excitement about high quality learning and teaching".

Many question whether this approach can be supportive, when so much rests on results, but in his interview with the TES at Capita's central London offices, Mr Pattison talks about working with the profession.

The strategy, he said, is to put more emphasis on local forums seeking teachers' views on good practice, and on providing training materials electronically.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said much of the strategies' work, including the School Improvement Partnerships, were being implemented in a non-threatening way.

But John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said:

"The tone of the five-year plan is not supportive at all. The main thing seems to be go for the Government's line that they are expecting continuous improvement from schools."

If this is a programme that might take some selling to the profession, Mr Pattison, 54, could be the man for the job. He arrived at the company after three years as managing director of Bradford's privatised education services, a former failing service, having previously been director of education at top-performing Blackburn with Darwen council.

In Bradford, Serco, the private contractor, brought in a raft of senior officials whom Mr Pattison had to lead.

The situation he faces at the strategies, is similar, as the leaders of the foundation, primary and secondary strategies have all recently left, and been replaced.

David Ward, Bradford's former portfolio holder for education, said that Mr Pattison had won his respect, and that of teachers - a view which seems widely shared. However, one Bradford source described him as "nice, but distantIteachers did not see him very often".

Mr Pattison's office at Capita is a short stroll from the Department for Education and Skills, which is useful, he said, as he visits twice a week to update officials on progress.

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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