Fine words, now let's see some substance

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Fresh from a 2 per cent cut in our budget, Brecknock primary school in the London borough of Camden will have a little less to spend on equipment and on insurance to buy cover for sick staff next year. But somehow the headteacher has conjured and cajoled enough to avoid losing another teacher. The parent-teacher association will paint another section of the school, and for a moment, we can sit back and enthuse about last month's White Paper Excellence in Schools.

For many schools the reality has been harsher: in some cases teachers that parents could depend on last year won't be back in September; the same equipment cuts are in place and no Dulux after-scent will greet the autumn in-take. And that is the rub.

For David Blunkett's Excellence blueprint sets a fine and inspirational tone for hoisting ambition, standards, and the place of education in all our lives. But we devour it in stunting and reducing circumstances. I have been a primary school governor on and off for 20 years. In that time I have almost never attended a meeting at which we could think, argue and act in a genuinely creative vein. Efficiency and cash savings to retrieve money from one area to spend on another have their element of creativity - but too often our gubernatorial backs are against the wall, and we are putting off essential tomorrow to preserve necessary today.

The White Paper is laced with zest, language and aspiration that is almost incompatible with what we have all learnt to understand as the stuff of government. What other civil service-printed publication could ever hope to sit easily at the Tesco checkout? The cash till is an appropriate site for the Government's sales pitch. For cash and how to save it, or more often cut it, is the life force of the educational decision-making process it seeks to influence.

As a parent and a governor I yearn for a meeting at which we are invited to spend #163;100,000 (10 per cent of our annual budget at Brecknock) of new money. Capital decisions are inevitably driven by leaking lavatories, broken water seals on the roof, and windows that threaten children in the playground below. Re-ordering our Victorian environment to create 21st-century learning spaces is simply never on our agenda. So the White Paper's promise to bring more parents on to governing bodies and into local education authorities is not as exciting as it sounds. Who wants to turn up to discuss which teacher must be sacked; which classroom will have to make do with only one computer; which special needs must be left unaddressed? Life for the parent governor is too often the very antithesis of what Excellence in Schools urges.

Beyond greater parental involvement, the White Paper proposes new school-busines s links. Yet how often is the business community offered the challenge of joining a movement toward growth and development in school? Too often, the local manager's first encounter with a school is across the begging bowl - being asked to contribute time, resources, or money to make good another reduction in funding.

So to the centrepiece - the setting up of the new General Teaching Council and its emphasis on standards and sifting out inadequate teaching. Recently I have been involved in an "Achieving Schools" inquiry for the Institute of Education in London. Without pre-empting our overall findings it will come as no surprise that school leadership and the specific persona, commitment, and drive of the headteacher is an essential common factor in what creates and sustains an achieving school. I have watched the primary schools in my part of London scour the earth for a head who will come for the money. In every case, governors have had to offer what we once paid after 10 years' service - the top of the scale. Half another teacher's salary and more has to go in securing the best. Thus I believe a new contract has to be forged with heads and teachers - the White Paper offers the phrase "Good teachers have a right to our support and recognition". In my book that means better pay to them - and a high level of commitment from them.

David Blunkett should use the little new money that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given him first on securing and sustaining the best school leadership money can buy. Year-on-year new money must then trickle down across the rest of the profession. It is not enough for the White Paper to talk of simplifying the process of sacking bad teachers if better conditions for the good teachers do not also follow. But good pay and conditions must also mean the return of the teacher to the playground in breaktimes, and the return of flexibility to teacher involvement in after-school activities. In short, the school community has got to become a living organism devoid of the time-keeping and rule-book mentality which was spawned by the awful warfare of the Thatcher years.

The White Paper is strong on smaller classes, modernising comprehensive education, target grouping, fast-tracking and supporting pupils with behavioural difficulties. But is there enough there for children with special needs? I believe that educational failure is rooted in the reality that we have cut special needs to the bone. Too many local authorities are forced to operate quotas and regimes determined to drive down the discovery of learning difficulties. Too often disruption and pupil alienation dominate the back rows of the classroom - this is far less about class size than about learning support. I speak as a parent whose own child was statemented with an allocation of three hours of individual teacher support per week. Invariably the special needs teacher was drafted elsewhere to make up for staff sickness, and most weeks my daughter was greeted by a different supply teacher for each of the hours she was allocated.

The White Paper may well be the policy manifestation of Tony Blair's "education, education, education". But from parents, teachers, and governors alike the call echoes back: "resources, resources, resources".

This is where the great millennium opportunity is so far being missed. For it is here that other departments at the heart of the Government could kick in. Using education to revive the community, and the community to revive the country, the millennium could so easily be a moment when every child, and every community is touched by some new resource that will represent a tangible turning point in their lives.

A revolution in access to information through school and public libraries would provide another foundation for the renewal of education that the White Paper seeks. Locating such a facility to enable access to school and community would see an end to the withering half-closed buildings that pose as libraries in the high street now.

Computing, on-line information access, work space, work stations, meeting areas, books and refreshment would be the stuff of these new libraries. And every town would have one. Some would have to be paid for by the Millennium Fund, others merely converted with an input of local commercial support. Three years ago Nicholas Chamberlaine - a Warwickshire comprehensive near Nuneaton - had a locked room containing unsorted piles of books that passed for a library. This September the school opens the kind of state-of-the-art libraryinformation idea that I am describing.

If this White Paper is to live beyond the aspirational codes it sets out, then it is precisely this kind of resource coupled with a new deal for teachers and investment in special needs that will give it its best chance.

Jon Snow is a governor of Brecknock primary school in Camden, north London, and presenter of Channel 4 News.

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