Heads fear Big Brother

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Watching you, teaching them. Michael Shaw reports on new 'critical friends'

A new national database compiled by advisers who are supposed to act as critical friends to schools has been condemned as "Big Brother" by headteachers.

From September all schools will be visited by a school improvement partner (Sip), normally a serving or ex-headteacher, who will spend five days a year working with them.

But, as heads attending a workshop at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference discovered, the partners will also be collecting a range of data including each school's strengths, priorities for improvement, and steps it is taking to progress.

The database, demanded by the Department for Education and Skills, will be managed by private contractor Capita, which is overseeing the Government's primary and secondary strategies, including the Sips.

Adrian Percival, national Sip coordinator, said that it had not been finalised what information would be included on the system.

However, he said that the DfES and local authorities would have access to the database and that it was also likely to be available to the public for "freedom of information reasons".

He said that 60,000 reports a year would be fed into the system and that it could be used to spot trends or showcase good practice.

"It won't be judgements, just a factual record of what's happening and what schools say their objectives are," Mr Percival said.

Philip May, head of Costessey high school in Norfolk, was among the headteachers who attended Mr Percival's workshop. "I am concerned that they are going to be collecting all this data, as it sounds very Big Brother,"

he said. Aspect, the inspectors' and education consultants' association, warned delegates at the TUC congress earlier this year that the Sips were becoming a second Ofsted and that their training was promoting a "tick-list mentality".

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the database plan was "a horrific step into shark-infested waters".

Mr Percival said that more than 1,600 applications had been received from people interested in becoming Sips. Heads who have applied have complained about the complex application process. It includes role-play tests and a data evaluation exam that must be completed within 35 hours of opening its envelope.

The database was not mentioned in last year's DfES paper "A New Relationship With Schools" which outlined plans for SIPs.

Capita has a troubled history with databases: it was criticised after computer problems for the Criminal Records Bureau and initial difficulties administering London's congestion charge.

The National Foundation for Educational Research recently evaluated schools piloting Sips and found that 90 per cent of heads rated advisers as supportive and easy to talk to.

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

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