Call to 'take out'poor heads scorned

11th April 2003 at 01:00
The Education Secretary's macho rhetoric has gone down badly with councils and school governors. Warwick Mansell reports

A NEW government drive to get tough on heads of under-performing schools has been rubbished by local authority leaders and school governors.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, was accused of "misguided rhetoric" after calling on councils and governors to "take out" incompetent heads.

One head accused Mr Clarke of a "Saddam Hussein approach to school improvement" after his comments in an interview with the Press Association last week.

Mr Clarke trained his sights on secondaries which the Government describes as "coasting" - failing to fulfil their potential, despite superficially reasonable results.

He said the number of seriously incompetent heads was small but added:

"Where the head's the problem, he must not be allowed just to go along. The head must be taken out or heads of department moved. Both the governors and the local education authority have to be completely ruthless addressing the problem."

His comments appeared to be a threat to secondaries that do poorly under new "value-added" measures that show how much pupils' performance improves in the years leading up to GCSE. However, the Government's value-added calculations are hotly disputed. The Specialist Schools Trust, secondary heads and academics such as Durham University's Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon say the methodology is flawed.

Mr Clarke made his comments as around 1,400 secondaries are about to receive pound;125,000 a year from the Government under its leadership incentive grant scheme.

Governing bodies are being encouraged to take a range of measures to improve school leadership including sacking heads and school managers, using leadership cash to pay them off if necessary. Councils can withhold the money if they think action taken by schools has not been sufficiently radical.

But Jane Phillips, chair of the National Association of Governors and Managers, said of Mr Clarke's comments: "This is not going to make us more likely to take tough action. It's just misguided rhetoric.

"Ministers know that the best way to improve the education system is to work with the professionals. This is not going to help."

She suggested heads should be supported, not sacked. "The fact that a school is 'coasting' is not grounds for the sack. A head may need a kick up the backside, but the radical way to improve performance is to keep that person in post, support them and challenge them to improve."

Graham Lane, chair of the National Employers' Organisation for School Teachers, said Mr Clarke had no legal power to take action against under-performing heads, and neither did local authorities.

Legally, councils which have concerns about a head have to put them in writing to a governing body, whose chairman then has to write back proposing action to be taken.

But the local authority has no power to insist the head is changed, something Mr Lane said councils needed as governors were often reluctant to take action against heads. "Unless we get this reserve power, (Mr Clarke's move) is not going to succeed," he said.

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said that Mr Clarke was referring to a "very small minority" of headteachers.

Diary, 23, Leader, 24


"Bellicose and unhelpful... absolutely counterproductive," is how Bob Dingle describes Charles Clarke's remarks about underperforming heads.

But if Mr Clarke is serious, Dr Dingle could be under pressure. His school, Seaham school of technology, in Durham, came fourth from bottom in a table produced last week by the Specialist Schools Trust, ranking 656 secondaries by how much they improve results.

The trust used pupils' national test results at 11 to predict what results they would get five years later at GCSE. At Seaham, 55 per cent of pupils should get five Cs or better at GCSEs. But its actual score is 37 per cent.

It did slightly better in the Government's value-added league tables.

Yet the 1,100-pupil school was identified in a 2000 inspection report as improving, with praise for Dr Dingle's "energetic" leadership.

It became a technology college in 2001, and is taking part in a number of initiatives, including piloting a two-year key stage 3.

Dr Dingle said it was "crazy" for Mr Clarke to pile pressure on heads when the National College for School Leadership was promoting more constructive ways of helping them "It seems crazy to say that... (while) people are busting a gut to make their school succeed, that you have to get rid of them."

He added:"Where are the replacement heads that are going to come and turn these schools around?"

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