Blurred vision

29th March 2013 at 00:00

He hasn't been in the post long, but schools minister David Laws is making his mark. When I heard him speak recently to the National Education Trust (NET), colleagues said they had heard him three times in two days. It's good for the new boy to outline his vision, though, surely?

I guess it depends on what you call a vision. The mission belongs to Michael Gove and Laws' vision is entirely based on statistics. He reels off the percentage of children "ready for secondary education" - or not. He will save UK education by raising floor targets (yawn) and imposing a new, far more sensible (how many times have we heard that?) accountability regime.

Laws praises outstanding school leaders who set themselves much higher targets than the government floor level. Of course they do. But policymakers always miss the fact that the best school leaders aren't target-driven: their aspirational vision for a school, their never-slaked thirst for improvement, is visceral, vocational and professional - nothing to do with figures.

Nonetheless, figures drive the system now. In his NET speech, Laws barely mentioned teachers, only the Neanderthal, leftist irresponsibility of their unions (that is how he and his boss characterise those who disagree with them). He spoke of trust and autonomy just once - in answer to a question. Then he returned to the required levels and what Ofsted will do to schools that miss them.

How can you feel trusted or autonomous when the Ofsted gun is pressed to your temple?

Earlier that week I'd been in East Durham, coincidentally on the day that Gove castigated that area's "smell of defeatism". Although I've lived in the North East for five years, I hadn't been to East Durham before. More than two decades after the miners' strike and the closure of its mines, the area is still blighted. New businesses and enterprises haven't rushed in. There's a gap where the major employer used to be.

Of course schools need aspiration, hope and ambition. But, frankly, up in the North East we find the policymakers a long way south. Gove has no idea of the reality of East Durham, an area tenaciously battling to improve - but with no focus, help or understanding from central government. Indeed, our local councils are suffering worse cuts than those in more affluent parts of the country.

When Laws spoke of outstanding leaders, he forgot the most important aspect of great leadership: when something goes wrong, good leaders don't blame someone down the line, they take it personally.

Government knows no such response. I've spent 23 years of headship trying to mitigate the worst effects of successive education secretaries. They take no responsibility. They blame schools; ineffectual heads; lazy teachers; communities. No blame for ministers who turn a blind eye, introduce their latest daft initiative without thinking it through, and leave teachers and school leaders to pick up the pieces.

Different faces, different administrations, same old messages. Our children deserve better. And so do those who work incredibly hard to give them the life chances they need.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed here are personal.

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