Beware of the pandas

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Heads take potshots at beastly inspection measures, as their association celebrates its change of name. Michael Shaw reports

An outsider trying to eavesdrop could easily have guessed it was an event for zoo-keepers after overhearing talk of leopards, pandas and endangered species.

Booklets for the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders in Birmingham were even illustrated with large close-up photos of a leopard's spotted tail.

The organisation changed its name from the Secondary Heads Association in January, but the conference seemed indistinguishable from those in previous years: a fact underlined by the apparent absence of any college leaders and by the association's slogan: "Same spots - new name".

However, it was pandas rather than leopards that many of the 366 headteachers, deputies and assistants were alarmed about.

To be precise, the contextual value-added Pandas (performance and assessment reports) which Ofsted introduced last year. The heads said the scores often gave a misleading impression of their work and that inspectors were making up their minds about schools before setting foot inside them.

Sue Kirkham, ASCL president, told horror stories of the advice which inspectors had given to help schools bump up their scores. These included telling primary schools they should avoid getting too high results at key stage 1 so they could show improvement at key stage 2 and advising secondary schools against assisting their local primary schools.

"These comments are possibly the most offensive I've heard during my entire career," Mrs Kirkham said.

The association got an unusually speedy response from the Government.

Jacqui Smith, schools minister, promised delegates she would work with them to make inspections more rounded.

It may have been for this reason that Ms Smith escaped the heckling that Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, received last year.

It may also have been that heads were in a friendly mood after hearing the Bournville school big band play "That's the Recipe for Making Love".

Or they may have simply dozed off. A private school head from Wolverhampton proudly announced he had only woken up for the question and answer session after the minister's speech.

Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, managed to stay awake through Ms Smith's education jargon but he was overheard asking "Where do they get the language from?"

The glazed expressions in the hall lent weight to a theory that headteachers are increasingly suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder, an idea put forward by Andy Hargreaves, the British-born education professor at Boston College.

Professor Hargreaves said he was alarmed at the speed with which heads now changed jobs and urged them to stick in post for at least five years if they wanted to make a lasting difference. "Perhaps we need to put the heads on Ritalin and not the kids," he said.

John Dunford, ASCL general secretary, said the reason for the high turnover of school leaders was growing pressure from inspectors and local authorities, which was making heads "an endangered species".

Mr Dunford said the Government was wasting more than pound;700 million a year on schools which had sufficient funding while other more needy schools missed out. He called on ministers to end the confusing array of education initiatives "that have sprayed funds around like Dick Cheney on a quail shoot".


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