Editorial - A brave bid to balance autonomy and accountability. But it had better work - or else

26th November 2010 at 00:00

You can fault the Government's white paper for many things, but lack of ambition isn't one of them. The Importance of Teaching has something to say on teacher quality, teacher training, Ofsted, exams, the curriculum, pupil behaviour, pupil progression, pupil premium, pupil exclusion, uniforms, sixth-forms, school structure, school autonomy, school improvement, school leadership, school funding, grammar and punctuation and prefects. No views are expressed on school pets or blocked toilets, but it can only be a matter of time. The Government has A PLAN, and if it makes it into law no teacher or school will be unaffected.

The Government's main arguments are that the country's over-regulated schools are falling behind international competitors, that the attainment gap between poor and wealthier pupils is growing, that insufficient attention has been paid to developing excellent teachers, that bad behaviour is still too frequent and that the curriculum has achieved the remarkable feat of being incredibly constrained but utterly undemanding. To fix this, ministers propose tough love: those who perform will be rewarded with more autonomy; those who fail will be shown the naughty step, or the door in the case of no-hopers.

Ministers insist on rigorous accountability in the form of a revamped Ofsted, overhauled league tables, extensive publication of schools data, higher thresholds for school underperformance and a less forgiving exams regime. But they also offer more freedom for schools that perform well - an acknowledgement that teachers, not government, know best how to teach - a reduction in red tape, fewer inspections and greater flexibility for heads to spend budgets and set hours and pay. Egos are tickled with talk of "highly trusted" professionals, yet teachers are firmly reminded that they are also "highly responsible for the progress of every child".

There are some excellent proposals: tempting top graduates into the profession with student loan repayments is far better than tinkering with PGCE degree grades. Using average levels of pupil progress as well as raw attainment is a step in the right direction, and balancing schools' need to exclude troublesome pupils with their continued responsibility towards those excluded is inspired.

And there are some real turkeys. The notion that what schools really need is more ex-service personnel is daft. Why ministers think that square-bashing and a working knowledge of camouflage are essential teaching skills isn't entirely clear. The "strategic" role assigned to local authorities is undefined, the vision for vocational education isn't convincing and the cut to school sixth-form funding is horrendous and no better for being shabbily disguised as "value for the taxpayer".

The Importance of Teaching makes a coherent and intelligent attempt to balance autonomy with accountability. It could result in significantly improved schools with highly regarded and motivated teachers. If it does not, the Coalition can kiss goodbye to a second term. gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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