Backroom brigade is 'frontline' force's secret weapon

5th February 2010 at 00:00

You don't have to be an English teacher to know what slippery things words can be.

Take the word "satisfactory". My guess is that outside schools it probably means satisfactory. But when used by Ofsted it shifts its meaning a bit and too often feels as if there's an unwritten preceding adverb - "merely". Satisfactory, the subtext seems to be, is merely satisfactory.

Or take that familiar word "target". In education it has become what linguists would call a dead metaphor - a word or phrase whose original meaning has been stifled to death. Thus the original notion of a target was something you fired an arrow at. If you hit it, you had done well. But if you exceeded it, you had, by definition, missed it. Exceeding a target was a sign of failure - the arrow fired too far. Nowadays, exceeding our targets is what we're exhorted to do: it's what the job's about.

The reason I serve up this mini-lesson in semantics is because there's a word that is worming its insidious way deeper into an increasing number of education pronouncements and we better be sure we know what it means. That word is "frontline".

Against the backdrop of Whitehall knives being sharpened for the inevitable spending cuts, we hear expressions like "frontline services will be protected", a mentality that Steve Bundred, head of the Audit Commission, last week questioned: "To simply exempt the two most well-funded services (education and health) from the kind of pain that will be inflicted on everybody else seems to me to be insane."

So, like dark clouds amassing on the horizon, cuts are in the air - and never was it more urgent to have a clear definition of what "frontline" might mean.

Originally a boundary between military positions, now the word seems a lazy shorthand for people who do the things we think we can't do without. If that's the case - whether the Audit Commission thinks it's realistic or not - we have a problem, because the notion of "frontline" and "backroom" was never as clear-cut as some politicians might have us believe.

Taking the original word - if I'm a soldier on the frontline, I might feel exposed if there isn't someone behind me looking at a radar screen or map, tracking enemy movement. It might be that those backroom staff are saving my life or making my job easier.

One of Labour's greatest achievements has been transforming the landscape of who works in schools. But it leaves those who will wield the knife a big problem. The very concept of who's frontline and who's dispensable, who makes an impact on learning and who doesn't, is difficult to pin down.

Ask someone outside education and they'd say "frontline" means teachers and we need to keep lots of them in classrooms teaching children. But the rest of us know that the workforce remodeling agenda - the wish to declutter teachers of administrative distractions and focus them on classroom practice - has had an extraordinary effect on who is employed in schools to make an impact on pupils.

It's easy to forget the hostility and suspicion that greeted the prospect of what Michael Barber, in his book The Learning Game, termed "paraprofessionals". Over a decade the workforce in schools has been reinvented significantly: teaching assistants, cover supervisors, higher-level teaching assistants, behaviour managers, learning mentors - there's an accomplished army of adults other than teachers whose job is to help pupils to learn.

And if it the transformation has taught us anything, it's that these people make a huge impact. Many pupils have benefited from one-to-one and small group support, coaching and mentoring, from someone with the skills, patience and credibility to work in a very different way from their regular teacher. These people are, without doubt, very much the frontline.

And while administrative burdens have been stripped away from teachers - no handling dinner money, no putting up displays, no cover for absent colleagues other than rarely - it has generated a range of additional roles which have also become vital to schools. If teachers aren't handling money, then someone else needs to. Someone else needs to oversee the look of corridors and classrooms. Someone has to cover the class without a teacher now that teachers themselves cannot.

So unless the key principles of the social partnership - the alliance of teacher unions and government - are about to be dismantled, there's not much room for manoeuvre. This all exposes the big flaw at the heart of the process of modernising the profession: there was no legal requirement that, as administrative burdens were stripped from the teacher's role, the change must result in better teaching, better training, better performance management and more focus on pedagogy.

If the new year got off to a chilly start because of the snow, it's about to get decidedly chillier as the great spending freeze and associated savings move in. We may start to learn what "frontline" means rather sooner than we realised.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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