Editorial: Hit squad or help squad?

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
At first sight, the Government's initiative in sending consultants into 18 failing schools looks less like a fresh start than a last despairing shove.To the ears of the suffering schools and their local authorities, the change of language - from hit squad to help squad, or swat team to smart team - could well have an Orwellian ring.

These are, by definition, schools with intractable difficulties. That is why they have been on the failing list for more than two years, and in Ofsted's judgment have improved less than others in the same situation. Branding them as failures yet again risks destroying any nascent revival in the morale of their pupils, parents and teachers. Ofsted's unpublished report on American school improvement programmes showed that struggling New York schools, far from being spurred on to improvement, were demoralised and stigmatised by the "failing" label.

We now know many key ingredients of successful schools, but it is not necessarily simple to relate these to failing and traumatised schools. Many of the 18 schools named this week have been awash with consultants, advisers and inspectors since their original trauma. The offer of ministers' attention and a few more days of consultancy time - however smart the consultants - hardly seems the magic potion needed to raise their achievements.

So the hurt and even cynical response to the new policy, already reflected in the comments of the schools concerned and the teachers' unions, is understandable. But this is also the week when the enjoyable drama starring Ann Widdecombe and Michael Howard has laid bare the much more damaging cynicism of a government that separated "policy" from "operations" and blamed everyone but themselves when things went wrong.

The new Labour Government has now publicly taken responsibility for failing schools, and given us 18 named case studies whereby we can judge the success of their new initiatives in six months' or a year's time. Ministers will be brought face to face with the variety of problems of schools in the most disadvantaged areas. As Tolstoy nearly said: "All happy schools resemble each other but every unhappy school is unhappy in its own way". The reasons for failure include many factors outside the school's control, such as poor housing, drugs, unemployment, and cultural attitudes.

What's more, it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, for schools in run-down city areas to recruit competent staff - other than a few excellent, idealistic, inexperienced young teachers with a missionary instinct. There are particular recruitment problems caused by the cost of living in the Greater London area, which has 10 of the named schools. One of the schools on Mr Byers' list has now advertised three times for a new head. However good the acting incumbents, a permanent effective head is generally seen as the single most important factor in school improvement - the "magic wand" cited by Sir Keith Joseph back in the 1980s.

This policy must also be judged in the context of the new legislation being prepared for the summer. There is general agreement that the current procedures for closing schools and dismissing inadequate heads and teachers are far too cumbersome and elaborate. As David Blunkett has pointed out, it will be a tricky business balancing teachers' employment rights with the rights of children to a decent education. But he is facing up to the problem, and it is to be hoped he will involve local authorities,teacher unions and governors' associations in the consultations. It is in no one's interest that the reputation of the teaching profession is dragged down by incompetents.

There is also the question of resources - in particular, the difficulties faced by local authorities under the strictures that apply to local management rules when they want to support new heads in failing schools by giving them extra investment. Again, this is a sensitive area: there are problems in seeming to reward failing schools, and the independence of governors in normal circumstances needs to be safeguarded. But if LEAs had more power to intervene - with both resources and management advice - before schools were branded by Ofsted as failing, thousands of children might benefit.

So now we wait to see if central government's new strategy of coming in as a key player in school improvement - rather than acting as a hands-off, nothing-to-do- with-me-guv, sniper from the sidelines - can make a real difference. The main reason to congratulate the Government for its initiative was summed up by a parent at one of the 18 schools, who had himself been a pupil there 30 years ago. He was quoted as saying: "It was rubbish then and it's still rubbish". Labour's "zero tolerance" of failure may be the kind of rhetoric that arouses justified cynicism from weary professionals; but better to aim for zero tolerance than allow failure to drift on for 30 years.

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