Cheers for plan to involve business

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
We should wholeheartedly applaud the proposal by Government for the private sector to take a major role in improving the performance of failing schools: a proposal which, incidentally, the previous administration ignored when it was put to them. Another example, I suppose, of this Government being prepared to out-Tory the Conservative party. Crucially, within the proposal, there is a realisation that for such a move to succeed on how the shackles of antiquated dogma and restrictive practices have to be removed.

So there's a bonus in the notion of "suspending" (I hope that's a euphemism for scrapping) national pay and conditions arrangements - and let's hope too that it signals their ultimate removal from the system entirely. Equally certainly, the ability to do real damage to the present minimalist national curriculum and replace it with something broader, deeper and more rigorous, can only help solve some of the problems of indiscipline and poor academic standards that beset too many schools. Let's not kid ourselves that putting a few extra men into primary schools will make much difference to the difference in performance between boys and girls; the gap is greatest in failing schools which need a change in what is done and how it's done - not who does it; competence is not determined by gender.

As with most things I perceive with Government, I have my doubts about how this latest proposal will be managed and in particular I worry about the role envisaged for the local education authorities in bringing about improvement. I find it hard to justify them being part of the solution when they may well be the root of the problem. At the very least, their inertia may have been a major contributory factor in schools getting into a mess.

Many local authorities are excellent, of course, and shouldn't necessarily suffer all the opprobrium when a school goes off the rails, but we also know that some of them are pretty hopeless and don't deserve an opportunity to inject their own inadequacy into the process of change. If they were other than inadequate their schools wouldn't fail.

I would go further by extending the logic of exclusion for failing LEAs. There are those which short-change (both financially and educationally) their children, which have not got the first idea how to raise standards and which cannot carry out their own administrative duties efficiently, let alone give adequate guidance to schools to carry out theirs.

These are the authorities where teachers are driven to despair by lack of support just as much as by lack of money and they are simply not fit to be entrusted with the responsibility on to which they desperately wish to cling. There seems to me to be much to gain by giving others a chance to do the job better with tools of their own choosing - and be judged on the results in pretty short order.

The last government backed off from dismantling national pay and conditions arrangements, and clearly could not stomach private participation in the state education system along the lines of this latest proposal.

This Government thus far seems to have more bottle, but can it be really radical and do much more than simply tinker at the margins of a service in need of a drastic management overhaul? If it cannot, then the improvements introduced by both it and its predecessor will hit a ceiling of mediocrity so far as educational standards are concerned, and many of our present problems will remain with us indefinitely.

What I'm advocating is an intolerance of failure and action of a kind that represents the only practical way to genuine improvement. If something doesn't work it has to be fixed - and to do that we should let those who can do the job best have an opportunity so to do.

Michael Stoten is a former director of education for the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea

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