Goodbye, Mr Blair

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Government policy ignores the complex nature of schools, writes Judith Carroll (right)

Iresigned my headship the day the last century ended after a term of "stress-related" absence and a few months short of my 50th birthday. Perhaps it wasn't a wise decision, taken when the balance of my mind was disturbed, but at the time it seemed the only honourable course of action.

There were many reasons for my decision, but the crux was that I could not face the prospect of making more and more demands of colleagues in a climate in which I felt increasingly uncomfortable. When so much accountability is vested in tests - for the school and individual teachers - pupils will inevitably feel under pressure. Some rise to that challenge and some don't. "You can only do your best" sounds hollow when said to an 11-year-old on the borderline between level 3 and level 4, who represents several statistical percentage points.

The Government is dealing with the education system as if it can be divided into separate parts. Targets are set, performances measured and additional resources provided, but the system as a whole is never given proper consideration. Yet a school adds up to more - and sometimes less - than the sum of its parts.

Cast your mind back to the introduction of the national curriculum. Its constituent parts each had merit, but not enough thought was given to how the parts fitted together. Eventually it was slimmed down, and has now been reorganised again to make room for more literacy and numeracy work.

Would a study of a child's experiences in school over a week, a term, a year or a key stage show a commitment to developing the whole child? Would such a study demonstrate how schools foster independence of thought and creativity, whch have been our particular strengths for so long? The pupils I talk to find school less rewarding than they did just a few years ago. They may think positively about the literacy and numeracy hours, but school in general has become less "satisfactory" than it was. As for the staff, it's obvious that teachers enjoy their work less than they did in the past.

As educators, we are considered failures because we cannot match the expectations we make of ourselves, and which others make of us, each and every day. Yet we know in our hearts that balance and breadth are better in the long run than cramming, quick fixes and an overdose of pace and challenge. We are, despite our best intentions, passing on our insecurities to pupils.

School improvements need to make sense to the people implementing them and take account of all the factors which impede or contribute to their success. A school is a complex organisation, not a series of functions on a production line, and it is damaging to the adults and children who work in it if they are regarded as such. Higher levels of attainment which turn us all into basket-cases do not constitute progress, even if they allow David Blunkett to keep his job.

I am now looking forward to starting a part-time post as a "head's relief". A friend wasn't far from the truth when she remarked that this sounded like some kind of indigestion pill. I hope that I can use the wisdom I have accumulated over nearly 30 years as an antidote to the cramps caused by excessive bureaucracy and short-term thinking. If not, I shall retire prematurely to tend my roses - and hope they respond to performance targets.

Judith Carroll taught in London, Somerset and Bristol. Until recently she was a primary head in Bristol


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