Calm after storm of protests

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Heads in Harrogate were either happier with the Government or resigned to funding difficulties, reports William Stewart

What a difference a year makes. Charles Clarke left the 2003 Secondary Heads Association conference with howls of protest from heads, angry at a sudden and unexpected lack of funds, ringing in his ears.

That weekend in Birmingham marked the start of several months of strife for the Government as it slowly came to terms with the fact that, despite a large increase in education spending, many schools really were facing financial disaster.

Twelve months on, David Miliband was able to leave SHA's conference in Harrogate safe in the knowledge that his Government has taken the sting out of the situation.

The schools minister was quizzed by delegates about targets, value-added measures, the Office for Standards in Education and spin after his speech last weekend.

It might be that the Government's guaranteed 4 per cent per pupil increase has worked in many cases or simply that heads are now resigned to their funding difficulties.

However, some heads were sore after being hoodwinked by the Chancellor's Budget into believing they would be receiving around pound;180,000 extra in direct grants for secondaries and pound;55,000 for primaries in this year. Later a Department for Education and Skills email explained that the money was in the form of standards grants and capital funding that had already been announced.

Alasdair Coates, head of St Christopher's CE high in Accrington, called the Chancellor's statement a "complete travesty", and said he and fellow heads were "spitting feathers" about it.

The hottest topic over the weekend appeared to be the controversial new inspection regime, introduced in September. Jane Mann, head of King Edward VI school in Morpeth, Northumberland, asked Mr Miliband whether the fact that more schools than ever were failing inspections was a deliberate policy or simply the "by-product of a badly-thought-out framework".

No, it was not an accident, replied the minister. David Bell, the chief inspector, had been clear that with the national average of unsatisfactory lessons at 5 per cent, the previous trigger point for serious weaknesses of 20 per cent - four times the national average - was too high. That was why the trigger point had been reduced to 10 per cent.

"I think you would agree that double the national average of unsatisfactory lessons is a significant problem for a school and that four times is simply too high," said Mr Miliband.

Anne Welsh, SHA president, suggested that her school, George Stephenson high, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, judged by Ofsted to be "effective and improving" in 2002, would have been failed a year later if inspectors rigidly applied the new framework.

John Dunford, SHA general secretary, said the bar had been raised when heads were not looking. Too many Ofsted inspectors were "intransigent, inflexible, insensitive and out of touch", he said, before calling for the abolition of the "serious weaknesses" and "special measures" labels.

But his overall message, and the general mood of the conference, was largely upbeat. That optimistic view was even taken up, to some extent, by opposition politicians. Tim Collins, Conservative shadow education minister, recognised and welcomed the fact that a lot more money had been put into education since 1997. His party would look to build on whatever it inherited from Labour, rather than starting all over again. And there would be no "going back to the 50s" to revisit the debate on grammar schools. The Conservatives would concentrate on making comprehensives work as well as possible.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, was critical of much of the Government's education policy, but admitted that six consecutive years of above inflation increases in education spending was "impressive".

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