Downside of abandoning your principals

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Douglas Buchanan Is A Lecturer In The Department Of Curriculum Research And Development At Moray House School Of Education

In the brave new world following the McCrone report into working conditions, subject leadership in schools is passing to faculty heads with no experience of teaching any or all of the subjects for which they are responsible - and possibly no knowledge of any of the subjects beyond a passing acquaintance.

The Royal Society of Chemistry in Scotland recently commissioned a survey to seek views on the changes. This revealed that 15 out of 32 authorities either had a faculty structure in all schools or were working towards one; only four were intending to retain principal teachers. With only a couple of exceptions, independent schools were retaining principal teachers.

In some instances, principal teachers have been stripped of responsibility for managing chemistry, effectively being demoted to classroom teachers on a conserved salary but minimum non-contact time.

The general tone of responses from chemistry teachers was profoundly negative. Some respondents suspected that the faculty system was little more than a money-saving exercise. A source of anxiety, in many cases for faculty heads themselves, was the difficulty of managing and developing courses and effectively administering the national exam assessment arrangements when there was a lack of subject expertise.

It was also clear that working relationships in some faculties were becoming strained. The lack of promotion prospects for young teachers was cited and there were concerns about the fairness of budget allocation and the degree of direction as to how funds were to be allocated.

It was too soon to discern any drop-off in the quality of teaching and learning in chemistry, but many felt it would suffer in the long term.

Concern was expressed that when the reservoir of "demoted" principal teachers retired, there would be no one left with experience of running a department.

Some advantages were cited - consistency of approach across a congruent set of subjects and greater opportunities for transfer of best practice across departments being chief among them.

Perhaps matters will improve as the new regime beds in. However, at a time when investment is needed to protect the future of chemistry in schools, universities and industry, the new structure is almost unanimously seen as a backwards step.

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