Editorial - So you love us, Mr Brown. But do you trust us?

30th October 2009 at 00:00
The PM's endorsement is welcome, but now politicians must learn to resist meddling

The Prime Minister, writing in today's TES (page 1, Comment page 29), clearly feels proud of Labour's achievements. And with some justification. The pre-election harrumphing from the opposition about "dumbed down" schools should not be allowed to obscure the progress that has been made in the past 12 years.

But Gordon Brown's trumpet blowing is also accompanied by an admission that the centrally directed approach adopted by the Government in the past won't necessarily work in the future. In his words: "In 1997, our priority was to redress decades of underfunding ... and drive up standards (which) necessarily involved the rigorous regime of targets and top-down programmes." Now he says his administration has moved on: "We can devolve more power to heads and liberate teachers to perform those daily minor miracles in the classroom." "Trusting teachers" is his new mantra, which means "the profession increasingly driving improvements and ... putting ever greater responsibility in the hands of those heads with a track record of turning round underperforming schools."

Mr Brown's public backing for teachers is a welcome endorsement for a profession that has been subjected to battering on an almost daily basis recently. But is it substantially different from the following statement? This was a Tory spokesman clarifying what Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, said to the party faithful in Manchester earlier this month: "In his speech, Michael celebrated success in state education and made clear that further improvement depends on trusting heads more, giving them more power and control, and freeing them from bureaucracy."

So we're all agreed then? Continued improvement in our education system will only be achieved if we allow teachers and heads to do what they do best - teach. Before the profession gets too overjoyed by this remarkable outbreak of cross-party consensus, perhaps it should consider another fundamental question of trust. Why should teachers trust either party to let them do their job?

Historically, Mr Brown's government has thought that the answer to a problem is to issue a deluge of directives and laws. Top-down, state-imposed solutions are written in to its DNA. Can it really stop itself telling teachers not what it expects them to do - which is a perfectly legitimate concern of government - but spelling out precisely how it wants them to do it?

Philosophically, one would expect the Tories to be more inclined to give schools more freedom. But their recent pronouncements are not reassuring. If, as they say, they want to "trust heads more", what on earth are they doing getting involved in the minutiae of school uniform policy or proposing to draft in squads of bawling ex-sergeant majors because clearly teachers can't control the little blighters?

There is no reason to doubt either party's commitment to educational excellence. But none of their ambitions will succeed unless they enlist the support of the people they need to carry them out. They need to start believing in the profession they profess to admire so much.

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

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