Crusaders can't march on empty slogans

23rd February 1996 at 00:00
The good intentions enshrined in Labour's policy statement are not enough, argues Bruce Douglas.

How one warms to the idea of a crusade. Indeed, how could one refuse to fight for higher standards, high expectations, good discipline, action against incompetents? Or democracy, motherhood and hot breakfasts? But that's just it. Does Labour's Excellence for Everyone have a battle plan, as well as a battle cry?

A battle cry is a start. "Every school a good school" is a noble shout, especially if it signals the end of the divisive, ineffective technique of pointing out to the disadvantaged the achievements of the advantaged.

Therefore the emphasis on value-added measures is welcome. Current league tables identify educational wealth, not wealth creation. Unfortunately the document appears to contradict itself a little here, apparently both accepting the value-added argument (hooray) but then approvingly quoting some raw scores of its own (percentage of GCSEs grades A-C, league table position) as "proof" of the success of its proposed policies. Is there unreconstructed thinking here or - just as bad - a political fear of telling a brainwashed public that raw-score league tables are rubbish? But crusaders should be bold.

And confident. If the strategy is to "support" what causes success, and ruthlessly "pressurise" what causes failure, we have to be sure we have cause and effect securely identified. The document only half persuades. There is a quite shocking non sequitur (in section 1.9) claiming that because headteacher training is often post-appointment, "as a result" similar schools achieve different results. Though I am passionately in favour of more, better training, I would have to fight crusader-like, against such a crude claim. It smacks worryingly of a political hope for easy gains. They don't exist. Crusading is a long-term, costly commitment. Educational Holy Lands are not reached by jet.

It also smacks of a possible descent into a scapegoat culture, as do comments on appraisal, about how structures and people will "ensure" that targets and aspirations are met, or about getting rid of headteachers and other staff who don't deliver.

To avoid that risk we don't need to tolerate incompetence, or reduce expectations. But New Labour must remember this. Setting objectives does not count as "support". Only the person who can describe how to reach the objective is helping.

I could, myself, for example, wander into the local Marks Spencer, and after a morning's study of the operation, "helpfully" announce that the store is to increase profits by 100 per cent. I could even more helpfully announce that the first extra 25 per cent profit must be earned by the end of the next quarter, and offer the additional support that otherwise the manager will be facing the sack (time-bound, person-specific targets).

I could similarly "support" the Government (as a "critical friend") by setting a precise five-year economic development plan: for example to achieve a positive Pounds 50 billion balance of payments, coupled with a 10 per cent increase in public services. So glad I could help.

Objective setting is a part of what we do, but it doesn't achieve. The profession has a right, even a duty, to point out that you have to create learning wealth by inspiration and perspiration. You can't describe it, wish it, or threaten it into existence.

The danger is that the "new" key role of the LEA implied by one reading of the document, is really the outdated one of external control. Those who want to go back on local management and return to a bureaucratic imperialism that good LEAs have abandoned will seize on this misconception of role, and argue that only control by (re-labelled but in fact old-style) LEAs will do. Their game plan will be "control by quality control", or management by target-setting.

They will not read New Labour's statements "LEAs do not control schools, schools do" (Diversity and Excellence) or "Labour starts from the premise that improving schools is a task for schools" (Excellence for Everyone), but rather the potentially contradictory statements that the most important new role for LEAs is to be a "raiser of standards", and that LEAs will set plans "detailing how" targets will be met. Indeed there is opportunity implied for an incredibly bureaucratic new superstructure of target setting, planning groups. A Soviet-style command economy is not envisaged by Tony Blair. It is by some.

We must retort that we can be for raising standards, in favour of barring or dismissing incompetents, even as we insist that a target-and-stick approach, a culture of blame, and external interventionist control, just will not work. Excellence for everyone must indeed, as the document says at one point, be based on school control of school improvement.

Yes, let's have a crusade, but let's put schools at the head of it. A crusade by schools, not against schools. I notice the document raids Grants for Education Support and Training money three times, and each time for LEAs or other non-school managers to spend. If new Labour believes in LMS it will double staff-development money and allow only schools to spend it. Many will choose to spend it on LEA co-ordinated or LEA expertise-based support. What they don't want is "management by objectives", the long ineffective, discredited, 1960s industrial fad.

Nor will a blame-culture and externally controlled institutions attract the brightest and best into teaching in the next 10 years and we face a crisis of teacher supply.

Let's give schools the local management power, the support, the encouragement and the courage to crusade. Let's not edge appraisal towards a disciplinary procedure against teachers as the document threatens to do. Better actually to abandon bureaucratic appraisal and simply say that all heads and deputies (and heads of department) have the responsibility to act at any time against incompetence.

Let's separate that from the vast, ongoing, normal in-school development of teachers as experts.

On discipline, too, let's support schools. It's no good LEAs or Governments pretending schools are "failing" if they exclude dreadfully or disruptively behaving youngsters. It does the nation no good if the Philip Lawrences of this world (ie those with a "high" exclusion rate) are to be automatically judged as uncaring or incompetent.

There is very much to commend in the document. I also want to heal recent divisions between types of school. I want to work in an LEA (of the right kind). I am ready to sign up for the crusade. But I'm not about to lead my crusaders according to Colonel Blimp's blinkered battle plan. New Labour had better get that right. Joining with the tabloids to punch the profession won't do.

Allowing old-fashioned pre-LMS LEA management to re-emerge masquerading as quality control won't do. But, yes, I'm ready to sign up.

Bruce Douglas is the principal of Branston Community College and legal secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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