Beware politicians offering freedom

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Schools are suffering from botched attempts to second-guess what voters want, says Jane Phillips

The spotlight has moved. "Education, education, education" is no longer a clarion call. This government has followed the lead of President Bush in making "homeland security" the rallying point for the next election.

Whether this will bring the desired result at the ballot box remains to be seen.

But lest we begin to feel neglected, education was not totally forgotten in the latest Queen's Speech. It heralded more regular, lighter touch inspections; the school profile in place of the governors' annual report; rationalising the collection of data on schools; the introduction of three-year ring-fenced school budgets and the extension of the remit of the Teacher Training Agency to reflect its new role. This lot is very small beer in comparison with previous years!

As you may have noticed there is an election pending and the manifesto season is upon us. Each of the three main parties has its view of "the way forward" but whichever party wins, it will have the legacy of the last eight years as its starting point. So, what does that legacy mean for those of us who are school leaders?

There are school level and system-wide implications for us all to deal with. At school level there are staffing issues: the positive - we have a teaching force with higher morale; and the negative - it has been deskilled by a culture of central control.

Teachers have been subject to a regime which ensures that, through inspection and central directive, they rely on external direction rather than taking control of their classrooms and their destiny. It is only the most confident teacher who has the courage to say, "I'm not going to follow the literacy strategy and I will not plan every detail of every day so that I can prove to inspectors I'm a good teacher."

In addition, the remodelling agenda has changed the nature and balance of the school workforce. In the future, teachers will be expected to lead and manage an array of support staff and to plan and implement "integrated learning" (topic work to those of us who've been there before). The initiative for organising the minutiae of the curriculum is being passed back precisely where it belongs - to the teacher.

The question for school leaders is "How do we fill the skills gaps between our present workforce and the one needed for this brave new world?"

To compound the problem, there is a shortage of school leaders, both heads and governors, And this is likely to worsen. People just don't want to take on the level of responsibility that has now been devolved to schools - and who can blame them? The continuing shortage of good candidates for primary headship is creeping into the secondary sector and there is a shortfall of 42,000 governors - one in eight of the full complement. This is serious; supply and demand economics suggests that, in times of shortage, quality suffers. Could it be that the pendulum has already swung too far and that the mantra of yet more freedom from local authority control is, dare I say it, a load of old.... No, I don't think I'll go there!

Changes to the structure of the education system have crept and slithered insidiously into our consciousness. We have accepted them because we know that they are beyond our control. But these changes are based on a misconception of the proper relationship between schools and their local authorities; they severely underestimate the need for planning and accountability; they overestimate the appetite in schools for independence; they misconstrue both the needs of the system and the needs of parents.

They are not based on what the system needs in order to perform well but on an erroneous perception of what the government believes parents (voters) want.

So, in all, the legacy we have to accommodate is one of skewed subsidiarity. Subsidiarity - devolving decisions to the lowest practical level - is a useful concept but it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences when it is botched. And boy, has it been botched. The wrong people are being asked to take vital decisions and that's why so many of us feel so very uncomfortable. Heads and governors both.

Jane Phillips is an occupational psychologist, a governor of a primary school and former chair of the National Association of School Governors.

She writes here in a personal capacity

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