Free to take the blame

21st March 2003 at 00:00
SO the inspectors and, we assume, their political masters, are against "uncontrolled and irresponsible gambles with the future of our young people". They are insisting on secondaries reviewing their entire curriculum to assess its suitability for all pupils and are demanding innovation. But, of course, ministers cannot allow licence to amount to a "free for all". Standards have to be maintained across the country and schools held accountable. You cannot drop French for the Foundies but you can do it another way.

Whatever the intent, the controlling powers are sending conflicting messages to many in the front line who have yet to be convinced that any departure from the narrow confines of exam passes and other publicly measurable outcomes is worth the candle, especially if they are liable to be humiliated when some interminable target is not met or when a 1.5 per cent fall in pass rates triggers a major inquiry and further denigration.

Ministers are caught between tighter than ever public accountability and the evidence that real advances in the classroom can only take place through increased professionalism. So they want school-led innovation but directed by a raft of performance control measures and monitored rigorously by HMI. What they make of East Renfrewshire's move to ditch Standard grade is unclear.

It might be argued that this is a system with checks and balances. But it is all very well for ministers to be cuddly while, almost in the same breath, hinting at a crackdown on "failing" schools and local authorities.

Yet more stick and less carrot will do little to encourage local innovation. Whatever they say about wider definitions of achievement, they will judge schools by hard results. And teachers know that.

If ministers really wanted to set schools free, they might consider refining the information that allows schools to be pilloried by fatuous comparisons. But would that be a gamble too far?

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