Far too late for a simple lick of paint

18th September 1998 at 01:00
When the Edinburgh secondary headteachers assembled for their first meeting of the new session, there was much speculation and comment about the outcomes of the millennium review.

Most of us could see the need for fundamental change and wanted as much autonomy as possible for schools. We are all vainly striving to resolve the complex needs of the Nineties with staffing structures for the Seventies. A Hillman Imp is being used where a BMW is required.

The future role of local education authorities, promotion ladders, salary scales - all are prickly issues which will evoke strong sentiments. Unless those involved have imagination, audacity, enterprise and mutual trust, a valuable opportunity to improve education for young people will be squandered.

Education authorities will have to define their core activities and consider whether functions such as property services, catering and cleaning - often of variable quality - can be contracted out to the private sector. I could deal much more easily with companies which could be shown the door if they are not up to standard. Compulsory competitive tendering has been a bureaucratic joke, and best value will not deliver the goods if it simply means repositioning the deckchairs on the rusty deck.

The role of the head teacher needs some serious scrutiny. At lunch-hour and intervals, I become the highest paid auxiliary in the country, as I spend 45 minutes on dinner-duty and supervising the legions at leisure - I would much rather be focused on my core business of managing the school. However, current arrangements leave me no alternative.

Senior management in schools needs to be supported by a new cadre of appropriately rewarded non-teachers, who have the skills and status to remove some of the mundane tasks. Salaries and conditions for headteachers and senior management also need close examination, as there are already signs in the paucity of applicants for senior posts that able people would rather have a life.

Our political masters have correctly concluded that it is at middle management, particularly in secondary schools, that the log-jam exists. The current structure fails pupils and their parents because it encourages square pegs to remain cosily ensconced in their round holes for decades. If the principal teacher of basket weaving was appointed in the Seventies, he can still be there when the millennium dawns, regardless of the needs of the school and long after basket weaving has gone.

Committed and professional teachers have nothing to fear from more flexible arrangements which can react to changing needs, reward people for their contribution and allow teachers to make progress within a modern and respectable promotion structure.

Guidance teachers have had "More than Feelings of Concern'' about being described by a member of the millennium review group as a "squidgy'' relic of the Seventies. This provocative and probably tongue-in-cheek description undervalues the important role that guidance staff have in meeting the needs of young people. However, their role has become so diffuse and complex that they cannot know where to begin on a Monday morning. The focus of their work needs to be restored to the personal and academic progress of their pupils. The daily toil of chasing up non-attenders and writing reports of doubtful productivity need to be assigned to others, and, here again, non-teachers can have an important role. Funding for careers guidance in relation to school pupils should be devolved to schools, to buy in support as required.

It is, however, at the basic teacher level that improvement in salaries and conditions is most urgently required. Unpromoted teachers in both primary and secondary schools are once again seriously underpaid, particularly in comparison to their contemporaries in industry and commerce. Having recently scoured the country for computing and business studies teachers, I can confidently predict very serious shortages in certain areas unless basic salaries are improved.

More than 50 per cent of the teaching staff at my school has been appointed in the past five years, and I have found that young teachers coming out of college into basic posts are generally of a very high quality. Scottish education can look forward to the 21st century with great optimism if all concerned, government, local authorities and teachers can have the intestinal fortitude to go for what is best rather than what will protect vested interests. Resistance to reform by teachers, who may fear "Greeks bearing gifts'', will be greatly attenuated if government and local authorities act with good faith and avoid the temptation to reduce wage bills and to score points. Major surgery is required; a facelift simply will not do.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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