Are public schools rattled?

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Is it coincidence that, just as the Government and some of the stakeholders in state education in England and Wales reach a rapprochement on how to reform education, Martin Stephen, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, proposes an independent commission to run secondary schools?

Has it anything to do with the fact that this largely independent-school heads' organisation - which played a large part in the unseating of Estelle Morris over A-levels - now finds itself excluded? It is out of the consensus-building between unions, employers and the Government that has broken out at the Department for Education and Skills (Wales has enjoyed even greater collaboration for a long time). Is the HMC concerned about the increasing competition from improving state secondaries? Or from 200 supercharged academies on the horizon?

And what of his proposed new class of "specialist academic teachers" who would solely teach the brightest (page 16)? Would that have anything to do with the need to distinguish the unique selling point of well-endowed schools specialising in the easily teachable?

Dr Stephen is right about one thing. It is not necessarily shameful if some outstanding mathematicians find they cannot "intuitively relate" to a pupil who does not share their passion for their subject. That certainly does not reduce our esteem for them - as mathematicians. But it is hard to see why this inability should boost their status as teachers; surely, that distinction should be for those who can share their passion for a subject with those who have no natural or social advantages?

It is also hard to "intuitively relate" to the parallel Dr Stephen draws between his proposed education commission and the technical committee the Government relies on to set interest rates. The latter is composed of expert economists; the former would include industrialists, dons, teachers and parents most of whom would be expert in almost anything but education.

Moreover, the Treasury continues to set the national economic objectives for the rate-fixers; the committee simply works out the best way to achieve them. In education, what is in question is exactly who should determine the personal and public ends of schooling for each child, not just the best technical means of achieving them.

Dr Stephen is also right that governments have interfered too much. Parents in the latest TES poll certainly thought so. And it remains to be seen whether the new relationship between government and unions will provide the necessary checks and balances on this.

The Government rejects Dr Stephen's commission on the grounds that "the public elects people to reform public services". This also seems disingenuous when it is taking schools away from elected councils and allowing them to be run by any crackpot ideologue with pound;2 million to spare - or by any independent school, come to that.

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