First nurture your experts, then send them away

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Does anyone know what really good heads of department in secondary schools are going to do with their knowledge and expertise? After a few years, such men and women should be encouraging and teaching their peers, beyond the school where they are employed. The system needs this, as well as the subject leaders themselves. Younger teachers and those not yet committed to the profession also need to see that there is a larger stage on which to perform. The same issues apply, presumably, to subject co-ordinators in primary schools and to course co-ordinators in sixth-form and FE colleges.

It should not be assumed that such excellent practitioners yearn to take on the mantle of headship or principalship. Some will - and thank goodness for that. Nothing could be worse than the leadership of schools and colleges falling into the hands of bureaucratic apparatchiks who lack deep experience and knowledge of good teaching and learning.

However, not everyone who is a successful and enthusiastic subject leader should be persuaded to move in the direction of institutional management. Their professional inspiration and example are needed elsewhere in the system. The problem is, where exactly?

A little noticed trend in all the recent kerfuffle over the Office for Standards in Education and all its works is the steady haemorrhage of Her Majesty's Inspectors from that great organisation without, it seems, any balancing transfusions of new blood. The increase of OFSTED administrators and stat-isticians may be necessary and laudable, but the steady loss of educational and professional expertise must be regretted. A cadre of such experts is needed at both national and local level. The connections between the two levels are also important if educational policy and practice are to be well-informed and sensitive to opportunities and problems as and when they arise.

Not so long ago, a good head of department would have been thinking about moving into HMI, or an LEA's inspectorate. It appears that such opportunities no longer exist, although local authorities are slowly restoring some advisory and inspection services because schools need them. The medium and longer-term opportunities, however, are uncertain, including the lack of a clear mission or reliable sources of funding.

The ceaseless switching of specific Government grants for curriculum and professional initiatives, under Grants for Education Support and Training and all its forebears, has been deeply corrosive of this professional cadre. School improvement, in all its manifestations, shouldn't be treated as a two or three-year project. Reliable sources of good quality advice on all national curriculum subjects and phase specialisms do not appear overnight on the basis of a series of short-term contracts. They need to be cultivated and developed over a period of several years.

An excellent and clearly successful head of science talked to me about all this recently. He is in his late thirties and has been in his present post in a large and thriving comprehensive school for the past seven years. In his case, he wants to maintain his contact with science education and, to this end, he is pursuing a dissertation-based masters course at Keele University and is an active member of the Association for Science Education. He pointed out that his salary now exceeds that which he would be paid in any likely career in a university education department.

Of course, if he and others like him were prepared to spend the remainder of their prime years in conducting wall-to-wall OFSTED inspections, this would be one solution of sorts. Few, however, see this as a satisfactory way of conducting one's life or, still less, of contributing to the development and nurturing of professional skill and creativity in others.

Much of the OFSTED system, as well as advisory and consultancy services needed by schools, are now dependent on the availability of former HMI and local authority inspectors and officers.

This ageing tranche of expertise will soon enough exist no more. Quite a few have already declined to embark upon OFSTED's new teacher-grading requirements, and not because they are pathetic wimps, necessarily. Some recently retired HMIs, for example, have already pointed out that in France, where inspectors have traditionally graded teachers, there is no evidence of either a greater clear-out of underperforming teachers or a more marked celebration of professional excellence and an opening-up of alternative career opportunities than in our own (pre-OFSTED) system. For an effective aspect of any inspection and monitoring system should be the encouragement of unusually successful teachers and heads to think about moving elsewhere and disseminating good practice.

A strategic oversight of such critical professional matters is urgently needed. It doesn't mean we try to establish a Soviet-style centralist system (when have we ever?). Rather, it means that someone, somewhere needs to think about how the system as a whole makes best use of that head of science, and others like him, and how it retains and rewards him - and not simply in financial terms.

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