Biased against failure;Platform;Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
The police force call it zero tolerance. But this management approach is about a lot more than just discipline, according to the former deputy head of a failing school, David Hughes.

ZERO TOLERANCE policing has been playing for some time now to mixed reviews.

The police chief in the North-East, who earned the nickname "Robocop" after piloting the new get-tough attitude, remains under a disciplinary cloud.

Elsewhere, the policy continues to capture the populist mood for action, even though in practice it often appears petty and indiscriminate. But despite its shortcomings, might there be a lesson for education here?

The initial assumption may be that in an educational context the approach refers to discipline. I am suggesting a much more radical review of the purpose and effectiveness of your school. Does your school have a zero tolerance approach to failure, individual and institutional?

How comfortable you are with the following questions will be revealing: if an Office for Standards in Education team visited your school next week, how accurately could you predict the top four issues for improvement?

what opportunities do students have to demonstrate self-management and influence the development of the school? Does a student forum exist, does it have a budget so that it can make real decisions which shape change within the school?

if a parent arrives with a complaint how quickly and effectively will this be dealt with? Can you be confident that every tutor, year manager and head of department is operating to the same standards?

do your staff have an active entitlement to training or are you adopting the path of least resistance and waiting for the dust to settle on the latest appraisal proposals?

beyond the Code of Practice, is special educational needs provision equally developed for students requiring long-term and intermittent help.Does the identification of individuals at both ends of the educational spectrum automatically lead to curriculum diversity and differentiation?

do you have a statistical baseline on which to base your answers?

If you are not confident in your answers to any of the above questions then a zero tolerance approach to failure in your institution might be a systematic and proactive approach to future planning.

You might wonder what would such an approach encompass in policy and practice.

You may inhabit a policy-rich environment, but are the policies the subject of general consensus and discussion? Do they reflect the practice of individuals in the school? Who initiates change or must the policy wait for the next development cycle or inspection criticism?

Are policies the reflection of the school's aspirations and the markers of its progress or are they indigestible tablets of stone that reveal a culture of passive compliance?How seriously does your school take training and professional development? Areas of delight in your school inevitably come down to the efforts, interests and motivation of individual teachers. These may, or may not, influence year groups, departments or informal group practice. Do these individuals have the support and the opportunity to present their practice to a wider audience in in-service training events within and beyond the school?

The aspiration is to create a climate where teachers and students are aware that they are responsible for the well-being and development of the school.

To do so involves a radical overhaul of custom and practice, not least in the function and purpose of information collection and analysis within school. The technology exists to collect, collate and display student tracking information but, as a profession we lack the confidence and training to make this information suit the purpose of creative development.

How confidently do we present ourselves in parental consultations as dedicated professionals, in touch with the students in our charge? Does your pupil planner or equivalent adequately reflect your commitment to keeping parents informed and students self-managed? Does it even reflect the amount and distribution of homework in the last term? So much for a home-school partnership.

The common theme in a zero tolerance of failure school is the paramount need for a culture of individual responsibility. Each individual, student, parent, staff, governor, must demonstrate self-management skills that contribute to the success and welfare of the whole institution. For each individual, the skill becomes a right, an obligation and the greatest source of personal satisfaction.

It is so much more empowering for us to ask these questions and reach workable solutions for ourselves than to have others interrogate us about our shortcomings. Therein lies the first step to the zero-tolerance of failure school.

David Hughes was deputy head of an inner-city school in Nottingham. It was on special measures for two years and is to be put on the Fresh Start programme this month. He is currently on a year's secondment to Greater Nottingham Training and Enterprise Council and has just completed a National Professional Qualification for Headship.

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