Barber talks shop;Briefing;School Management

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
The Government's standards guru delivers the first TES-sponsored lecture for the Keele Improving Schools Network

Fifty-four weeks is a very long time in the world of education politics. But you would have thought, to paraphrase Philip Hunter, Staffordshire's director of education, that Labour would have resisted the temptation to emulate their predecessors by introducing a new idea every fortnight.

He was gently ribbing the Government's chief adviser on school standards at the launch of a series of seminars at Keele University last week. But Michael Barber was clearly proud of Labour's achievements in its first year.

Professor Barber gave his audience of teachers and education officials a whistle-stop tour of the reforms introduced in Labour's first 54 weeks.

Tony Blair's commitment to "education, education, education" was not just a rhetorical flourish, but a mission statement, he said. The Government was committed to investing in schools: pound;2.4 million on out-of-school learning over the next three years, pound;235 million on computer training for every teacher by 2002, pound;2.5 billion on capital expenditure over the same period and pound;5 million on family literacy projects to help parents and children learn to read together.

The first 12 months had been the year of "rapid policy development", he said. The next 12 would be the "year of relentless implementation".

The culture of the Department for Education and Employment had changed, he said. It was recruiting people direct from schools and sending its civil servants out to work in the education service. There were children coming into Sanctuary Buildings, the DFEE headquarters, to tell the policy-makers what they thought was going on in schools.

This was a government that wanted a dialogue with all the interested parties in education, said the professor. When the White Paper, Excellence in Schools, was published last year it was given away in supermarkets and newsagents because Labour wanted to know what people thought.

The same motivation persuaded them to write four pages for The Sun. A hotline number was included and Stephen Byers, the standards minister, plus 14 civil servants had spent a whole day listening to Sun readers sounding off about schools.

And headteachers who wrote in criticising the White Paper were telephoned from Whitehall: the department wanted to answer their criticisms and put them in touch with other heads and schools where they might find answers to their problems.

Professor Barber outlined the core elements of the Government's education strategy: * making schools responsible for improving themselves; * giving them the information to compare themselves with others; * providing ready examples of best practice so that schools can learn from one another; * using inspections and performance data so that schools are accountable; * making data more useful; * intervening in inverse proportion to the success of a school. The new Education Bill due to appear in July would permit earlier preventive interventions intended not to be too punitive.

Professor Barber underlined the Government's commitment to rooting out underachievement. "If you want success for everyone in education you can't tolerate under-performance. If something is going wrong, someone should be on the case putting it right.

"It's not tolerable if you want a world-class education service to know something is underperforming and allow it to carry on."

Asked if the Government's literacy programme was too prescriptive, he said it was up to each school to adapt it. Schools should make professional judgments based on good information.

Professor Barber was forced to defend the Government's "naming and shaming" of 18 schools last year. "It was the hardest decision ministers had to make," he said. "But the overall effect was demonstrably beneficial as part of an overall strategy."

But many were unconvinced that the vision could easily be put into practice. "It still feels as if we are not being trusted to make things happen," Mark Wassenberg, head of Poynton county high, Cheshire, told Professor Barber. "You say the right things, but a lot of what you are doing is based on the assumption that you know better than we do."

Michael Barber agreed that many headteachers felt the same way. But the climate was changing. "If you want a government that is going to make education a priority and invest in it, it's going to be under pressure to deliver," he said. "Nobody signs up to the idea nowadays that you can just put money into education and leave it alone."

Reactions to New Labour's vision were mixed. "It will be interesting to see how it works out," said Hilary Berry of Over Hall county primary in Winsford, Cheshire. "You can't argue with the vision. But as a recently appointed headteacher, there's a lot to take on very quickly."

Kate Townshend, a modern languages teacher at Moorside High School in Stoke-on-Trent, said: "It's reassuring that we've got a government that has a strategy. But teachers used to be autonomous professionals. Now that's not an expectation. We're breeding a whole generation of people who don't have a sense of their own professionalism."

Another head said: "We're feeling a bit edgy at the moment. We are the players and the managers are telling us what to do. We've got to score the goals."

Professor Kate Myers, director of the professional development unit at Keele University, who organised the seminars, said: "It's a very impressive vision. I have a lot of empathy with it. But I have a reservation about how it will be implemented. I hope teachers don't feel it's been too much imposed from above."


The Keele Improving Schools Network seminar programme, sponsored by The TES.

June 3. Anthea Millett chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, on Pedagogy and Professionalism.

June 23. David Reynolds of Newcastle University on The Highly Reliable Leader.

September 15. Tim Brighouse chief education officer in Birmingham, on Managing to Lead October 14. Dame Pat Collarbone, director of the London Leadership Centre, on Leading Leadership Centres.

For further information, contact Dorothy Tyson on 01782 583126

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