The centre cannot hold us back

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Peter Frost sets out a radical vision in which structures support innovation, the DfES is shrunk to a 'skeleton' body and power and cash are handed back to schools

The most successful primary systems in the world - notably Finland, Australia and New Zealand - have checks and balances of local and central control. These systems are highly valued by society and quite child-centred in their approach.

The central influence provides broad-brush strokes and ultimate sanctions for failure while local autonomy at best encourages innovation, ownership, and reflective schools.

In England, we have systems designed to enforce control until outcomes are up to scratch. Quangos and other bodies spend vast sums to shore up policies and protect this control.

Teachers are treated with mistrust and become unwilling to take risks for fear of reprisals. Their voice has become submerged and that of the child drowned. Debate has all but disappeared in staffrooms as teachers keep their heads down.

Cracks in the system are widening. There are signs that the literacy and numeracy strategies are running out of steam. And the most expressive elements of the curriculum have been vastly diminished.

It is time to make a choice. Should we have more of the same misery or should we take time to reflect and reassess? I believe we cannot keep ramming home the current flawed agenda with its band-aid solutions. We need a fundamental examination of where we are and our aspirations.

A starting point is to develop innovations and strategies that, while retaining much government control, allow far more local influence. An enabling culture needs to be established. Here are ideas for different parts of the system.

We should drastically shrink at leastsome of these government departments and quangos: the Department for Education and Skills, the General Teaching Council, the Teacher Training Agency and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Divert money saved from these cuts to schools and organisations that promote innovation and quality.

The DfES should be reduced to a skeleton staff, offering central support for innovations developed by think-tanks, in liaison with an education national steering group. This group, led by the Education Secretary, would have representation from all levels of education, as well as health and community. Local and national groups would then be able to vote on future policy, with a casting vote for the minister.

On the curriculum, a partnership of government officials and educators should be assigned to redesign the national curriculum and primary strategies. The focus would be on content, application, process, emotional literacy and learning in context.

Spending on the inspection procedure should be reduced and the inspectorate should be splite into two. An inspectorate would survey schools and education authorities and offer expert guidance and data to the national steering group. There could still be an Office for Standards in Education "hit squad" as a last deterrent for schools in trouble. But local advisers would work with regional senior inspectors to resolve most problems.

For self-evaluation, schools should develop an internal system that allows rigorous evaluation of the school and each teacher and child. Plans would be developed in school and contracts agreed with the local education authority. The emphasis would be on support and mentoring but quality would be rigorously monitored. LEA advisers would link with the national inspectorate.

The testing regime should be reformed so that there would be no league tables but trends and vulnerable schools should be reported nationally.

An Academy of Teachers - an independent, national group - would distribute professional development funds to LEAs, schools, teacher groups and individual teachers, and form networks to disseminate good practice. This work would strengthen practice and help innovation and risk-taking.

To promote funding equity much more money would be devolved to schools and LEAs with fairer formulas that would take into account particular rural and urban needs.

Structures such as these would retain ultimate central control but release local energy and autonomy. There would be investment in innovation, networking and dissemination of good practice. With the right infrastructure to support it, a more sophisticated curriculum can look more to the needs of the 21st century.

Peter Frost is chief executive of the National Primary Trust. An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent issue of the NPT's journal, 'Primary Practice'. The NPT's international conference, My Future Our World, will be held at the University of Wolverhampton from June 18-20.

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