Heads on the block

30th March 2007 at 01:00
School leaders are often one inspection grade away from a P45 - and new guidelines could make matters worse, warns John Dunford

DURING THE passage of the Education Bill through the Commons, the Government quietly issued a document, Guidance on Schools Causing Concern, mainly to pacify backbenchers who opposed the bill on the grounds that schools were becoming too independent. "Local authorities have more power than ever over schools" was the message to MPs minded to oppose the legislation on trust schools.

Consultation on the document closed yesterday, and heads should worry if the final version bears too much resemblance to the draft. The number of heads facing the sack this year is ahead of the figure for 2006, when 76 members of the Association of School and College Leaders received negotiated pay-offs, including 54 who were forced to resign from maintained schools.

The definition of "causing concern" is dangerously wide - from those in special measures to those that require "significant improvement". The vague "schools at which absolute standards are unacceptably low" offers an open door for local authorities to intervene in schools in challenging circumstances, even if there is evidence of progress. Schools with falling popularity may also be targeted.

The document urges local authorities to act if they perceive a school to be under-performing, first by issuing a "notice to improve", which gives the school just 15 days to present plans for improvement. If the authority thinks the response is not good enough, one option, says the guidance, is to sack the head. Other powers include a new "warning notice" system for schools in difficulty, an extended definition of "low performance", new power to enforce federations, and a requirement for faster "turnaround" of schools after a bad inspection.

Too often, heads are only one inspection grade away from a P45. We are already seeing a rise in the number of heads being precipitately sacked before an inspection by nervous local authorities. Where were those authorities when the school was in difficulty? Which council official is losing his job for failing to support the school? It has long been the case that the balance between pressure and support is tipped too far toward pressure on schools. A more strategic approach to support would help to redress it, but this guidance is a further mechanism for increasing pressure without improving the support that enables schools to improve.

The 15 days' notice to improve or be sacked will make it harder to recruit heads at a time when the numbers applying for headships are lower than they have ever been. It was worrying that the Government gave grants to local authorities to put the guidance into effect even before the Education Act had passed through Parliament and well before the consultation began in January. Some local authorities have already used the funding to hire school-improvement staff, ready to flex their muscle at schools in difficulty, when it should have been used to commission support for schools in need of help.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Warning notices

The guidance says schools deemed not to be doing enough to improve should be issued with "warning notices".

They then have 15 days to take "positive steps" towards a solution. If a school fails to comply, the local authority can enforce co-operation by appointing additional governors, suspending its delegated budget or closing it down.

Schools that dispute the warning notice can appeal to Ofsted.

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