Comment - Don't let new freedoms be overshadowed by issues of austerity

28th May 2010 at 01:00

There is a grave problem with the coalition's proposals to expand academies and liberate schools - they are likely to be far too popular. After a decade of coercion, heads will welcome opportunities to use their expertise to design schools that meet the needs of their pupils.

Which is not to say that the proposals are perfect, particularly with regard to "free schools". I fear they will work best where they are needed least. Unless, that is, school leaders are prepared to seize their freedoms and mobilise the most deprived communities; to work in partnership with parents to create schools that belong to the people. This will require different skills and a level of confidence that will be hard to find after being talked down to for so long.

The profession can make this work. In fact, I think it should run with it and make it into something greater than currently envisaged. However, the excitement of these measures could be overshadowed by issues of accountability and austerity.

How about this for a radical proposal? Let's actually measure the performance of schools. It's not something that has been tried so far. We have various management rituals, designed to make Government look commanding and schools feel small, but they bear the same relationship to performance as a rain dance does to a thunderstorm.

We need to measure the difference schools make to the things that matter. This is not something that can be captured in a few eye-catching statistics. Which is why I favour inspection in principle; and why I regret that Ofsted's ability to form a nuanced judgment of a school's contribution is being eroded.

But none of this will matter if trust between the profession and the Government is destroyed by a botched programme of cuts. Especially if free schools top slice resources from other schools.

If we must make difficult choices to free our children from debt, the profession will rise to the occasion. It is the way cuts are handled that matters.

So I end with a plea, to keep the excitement of the new freedoms alive: be straight with heads about the savings required so they can be straight with their staff. Don't sneak it in, don't disguise it, don't pretend the front line is safe.

Russell Hobby, Incoming general secretary of heads' union the NAHT.

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