Crazed and confused

5th December 2003 at 00:00
The barmy proposal for schools without teachers suggests some parts of Whitehall have lost touch with reality, writes Bob Doe

If the document reported on page 1 of The TES this week represents "blue skies" thinking at the heart of government, any darker thoughts nurtured at the Department for Education and Skills must be positively Satanic.

Its wildest fantasy is the teacherless school. This is suggested for phase two of the workload agreement from 2006. Under the new rules, it points out, only the headteacher is now required to have qualified teacher status.

In fact, only the headteacher need be permanently employed. All other staff could be "bought in" from agencies or "come in on secondment". From where exactly we are left to imagine.

The repeated reassurances of ministers that classroom assistants would only take responsibility for classes under the supervision of qualified teachers is exposed as completely hollow. As the paper observes, "that teacher might of course be the headteacher". Or superhead more like, since in addition to supervising the teaching of every class, they will also be single-handedly maintaining the distinctive ethos of the school as well as the consistency of its academic and pastoral policies in the absence of any permanent colleagues.

The paper goes on to propose that teacher recruitment targets be abandoned in favour of quotas for higher level teaching assistants: 45,000 recruited and trained by 2008 is suggested. Management posts in schools would be transferred to non-teachers to "embrace modern management practices".

The author clearly recognises that "workforce reform" on this scale first requires the reform of headteachers. Nothing less than a brain transplant is likely to persuade most heads to attempt to run schools without the support of fellow professionals.

This paper is not official policy - or not yet anyway. But it clearly signals aims within the department which go way beyond what even the National Union of Teachers warned of when it rejected the workload agreement. In propaganda terms, the NUT could hardly expect more from a full blown mole at work undermining the search for consensus on working practices.

These ideas go way beyond what education's arch-lampoonist Ted Wragg would have dared put into the fictional mouths of crackpot officials. Yet a quick check on the date shows they were compiled on November 11, not April 1. And the "status" of the document is given as "final". Civil service economy with words seems to have precluded the addition of the word "solution".

This post-holocaust vision of the "school team" is driven by the need to save money and the difficulty envisaged in recruiting sufficient teachers in future. It admits it also ought to stem from "a broader vision for the school of the future built on the Secretary of State's notion of 'personalised learning'." Like everyone else, however, the author seems a bit vague about what Mr Clarke has in mind. "Full articulation of that vision," is still "pending" it seems.

But perhaps the most extraordinary assumption in this paper is that "existing workforce partners" (that is everybody except the NUT) are "likely to offer a fair degree of support" for the "presentationally uncomfortable" plan to reduce teacher numbers in order to pay for more classroom assistants with "increasingly important roles in direct teaching". DfES officials are clearly confident the NASUWT will go a very long way down such a road rather than admit the NUT was right after all.

But would any teacher or headteacher want to work in a school run along the bizarre lines envisaged?

No one doubts there is greater scope for trained non-teachers to contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of schools. But few see any merit in the deliberate substitution of teachers. And much of the rest in this paper is, frankly, bonkers. The civil servant who penned it may even know as much.

The clues are the not-invented-here way in which the pending and unarticulated "notion of personalised learning" is carefully attributed to Charles Clarke. You can almost hear in it the coded alarm of Sir Humphrey Appleby's praise for the minister's brave, courageous (and career threatening) stand. Is "presentationally uncomfortable" another bit of code? Certainly, if the Labour party is mad enough to try to explain to the public how schools with fewer trained teacher will somehow raise standards then any voters who do not actually die laughing will promptly put the Government out of office, if not out of its misery altogether.

The suggestion that there is no alternative to replacing teachers with non-teachers perpetuates the one-size-fits-all fallacy of phase one of the workload agreement. If there is a problem once 50 per cent of those entering employment are graduates it will be with some secondary specialists, as now. There need be no problem with primary teachers. Even in one of the worst recruiting areas of London the local college has 19 applicants for every place it is allowed to offer on its primary training course. The issue is money not willingness to teach.

Falling rolls mean the extra 10 per cent of teachers required to provide non-contact time in primary schools already exist. The Government is not prepared to pay for them. Most of them, of course, will be NUT members. Its opposition begins to make sense.

Are there really ministers and officials in the department so unaware of the realities of life in schools that they imagine these ideas could improve them? Fortunately schools are not obliged to accept whatever notions Mr Clarke and his merry men dream up.

For the moment, at least, education remains a local service, not a national one. Schools and their "teams" are appointed and managed by heads and governors, not government officials. And this paper provides the best possible reason to ensure things remain that way.

The DfES has, of course, overseen such a workforce transformation before.

When further education was cut adrift from local authorities their terms of employment were ripped up. Teaching staff were casualised and impoverished through a similar dose of "modern management", agency employment and college budgets which left principals with few options.

But schools wield far more popular pressure than FE colleges. That is why Charles Clarke has had to do his utmost to avoid yet more six figure budget deficits this year.

Even the gung-ho moderniser who penned this paper accepts that "these changes will happen in practice only if schools are convinced they offer a better basis for teaching and learning".

If Charles Clarke tries to ram them through he will find a bit of his own personalised learning articulated for him.

Bob Doe is editor of The TES

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