Editorial - Rigid positions see the system stall at foreplay

29th May 2009 at 01:00
For schools to perform, unions and the Government must work on their relationship

The Government is being a tease. It has coyly advanced the possibility that "certain" freedoms enjoyed by academies could be extended to other maintained schools (page 3). What those desirable features might be and when they might be indulged, it doesn't reveal. Of course, it could be flirting with change merely to distract attention from those thrusting Tories. But assuming its intentions are less frivolous, what could, or, more importantly, should those delights be?

Pleasuring the teachers' unions is relatively straightforward. What makes them drool is the prospect of more control over standards - in particular, having more say over the curriculum and how it is taught. What leaves them cold is the very thing that excites academy supporters: freedom from structural restraints, be they local authority diktats or the ability to pay exceptional staff an exceptional wage.

Strip away the posturing, however, and there is a fair degree of unanimity about what makes a good school: exemplary leadership, a shared ethos, the freedom to innovate, a commitment to behavioural and academic standards, and excellent teaching. The basics are obvious. As so often, it's not what you have but how you use it that counts. Take good leadership. No one would deny that an inspirational head can transform a school. So, would the Government allow heads to ditch the manual from Sanctuary Buildings and trust in their judgment to deliver results in the manner they find most appropriate? Would the unions allow heads such latitude? Visionaries are rumoured to need a certain amount of leeway.

How about standards? We're all for them, apparently. Would Whitehall admit it has no hope of improving them if it does not accept at some fundamental level that the majority of teachers are even more committed to driving up standards than civil servants? Would those zealots who so hate academies for their supposed lack of democratic accountability confess that there is nothing more democratic or accountable than transparent information about a school's performance?

And then there is your actual teacher. All the evidence suggests that the most crucial component in improving a child's performance is teaching quality. Research shows that 40-50 per cent of the variation in children's results is down to the quality of the lessons they receive in class. In which case, the Government at some point has to invest in and pay teachers at a level currently reserved for lawyers or accountants, while unions have to admit that incompetent staff undermine the professional integrity of their colleagues, ruin the life chances of their pupils and should be removed far more easily.

There is nothing magical or demonic about academies. The ingredients that make them outperform - and yes the evidence is pretty consistent, they do outperform the schools they replaced - can be replicated elsewhere. But they will not work if Whitehall continues to indulge its dominatrix tendencies and if the unions persist in excusing flaccid mediocrity. After all, the most successful relationships are based on nothing more brazen than honesty.

Gerard Kelly, Editor. E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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