Abandon our sorry SEF for something Big

1st October 2010 at 01:00
`The SEF never had an engine and its construction was Airfixed together'

The School Effectiveness Framework (SEF) is the Welsh equivalent of David Cameron's Big Society. They both sound good and mean very little. Cameron puts his faith in volunteering; SEF is nothing more than better school collaboration. Cameron's pet project has a chance to develop meaning; the SEF is already dead in the water. The truth is that it sank on launch. It will sink again on any relaunch. The SEF never had an engine and its construction was Airfixed together. Those with the glue chose to completely ignore the Children and Young People's Plans. The school improvement gurus drew an SEF "pizza" in six parts to aid description. Farcically, primary pupils were filmed drawing SEF pizzas as an example of learning about learning. You could not make it up worse.

At the heart of the SEF was the demand for the three layers of leadership of the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), local authorities and schools to realign under the banner of tri-level reform. This is not going to happen in the Wales we know. There are irreconcilable divergences in behaviours and terminal weaknesses in capacity.

WAG "education" is about to lose another leader, David Hawker, the fifth in five years. The captains keep jumping ship. Hawker, the English import, did not believe in the practicality of his predecessor's grandest design, the SEF. Unfortunately, Hawker's sensible view that the project be jettisoned was scuppered by the arrival of a new minister, desperate for a quick win. WAG officials I have met professionally have no clue about the change theories of Michael Fullan behind the complex notion of tri-level reform. They don't know why they started SEF or where it is going.

The conditions at the local government level of leadership and management in Wales are equally unfavourable. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently delivered to the minister a devastating critique on Welsh governance overheads and the disabling effects on performance and efficiency. Consortia and back-office sharing are put forward as solutions. But what English accountants don't know is that Wales loves its parishes and fights to defend local territory and "liturgy". Power is never going to be given up freely. The four education consortia are dud dynamos of change. There is much talk of action but their main action is talk. The Association of Directors of Education in Wales does not act, it reacts. Both WAG and our overly fragmented parts of local government have presided over a post- devolution strategy that is a resounding failure. "The Learning Country" is shot to pieces as both vision and plan for improving schools. The SEF is the last chapter of a decade's story of overpromise and underdelivery.

And where is school leadership? I played a senior role in our local authorities for more than 10 years and on a daily basis did business with heads and governors, but the first SEF launch left out governors altogether. Estyn has recently said that about a quarter of our secondary governors are sleeping guards, which is generous. The scrutiny practice of most governing bodies is toothless. Affluent schools are characterised by complacency; deprived schools are asked few hard questions and are smothered in self-pity. Headteachers have no collaborative instincts and look after their own first. If collaborations do form, they tend to be against something. Usually another poorly designed WAG initiative or bouts of local authority officer-baiting.

Moreover, there is a deep resentment, particularly among secondary leaders, about the unacceptable level of school resources caused by WAG's financial mismanagement and the excessive councillocal authority take of education settlements. Why would you think of getting closer to those who have failed you and robbed you of resources? It's an irretrievable breakdown of trust.

The more that Alma Harris, the WAG special adviser, retreads 1990s school improvement initiatives and claims that the SEF is Wales's great example of how to do national reform, the more I am persuaded that "JaneDavidsonitis" is still infecting WAG. That affliction is terrifying in its risible claims to worldclassness, its woeful implementation processes, its funding negligence and its hit-and-miss impact on Welsh children's learning. The SEF is just another byway in "The Slow Learning Country". Abandon it now.

Let's do something else, a programme whose costs are known and predictable, one that we know works. Like a five-year investment in Reading Recovery for 10 per cent of our six-year-old pupils in 50 per cent of our schools. Getting all our children reading is proper Big Society work.

Terry Mackie is a former head of school improvement for Newport Council.

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