Here's to a happy new sense of trust in 2010

1st January 2010 at 00:00

Happy New Year. Here, in this shiny just-born world of 2010, it's that word "new" that looks most enticing. Because one way or another a whiff of newness, of change, is in the air - whether of a whole government or a post-election world in which spending cuts will transform the education landscape.

Meanwhile, like an over-tired toddler refusing to accept that the party's over and it's time to go to bed, the current administration feels like it's clinging to the banisters, kicking the stairs in petulant fury.

Thus we get the political equivalents of the childhood tantrum. Ever more desperate announcements are hurled out of Whitehall like toys from a pram. Take the pre-Christmas U-turn on vetting. Suddenly the default position of assuming everyone's a paedophile was deemed crass and counterproductive. The rationale that dangerous people were lurking outside every school gate like Dementors trying to break into Hogwarts was ditched.

When an unexpected alliance of school leaders pointed out the possible consequences - an end to foreign exchanges and no more parents helping to do the lighting for the Christmas play - Schools Secretary Ed Balls announced a hasty change of tack. It looked like a rash outbreak of common sense, though in fact it still means a country in which 9 million adults can't be trusted to work with children without vetting.

It all smacks of gloomy managerialism. Thus the parent and pupil guarantees of the new education white paper look likely to ratchet up expectations to giddying levels and then dash them.

The document is a veritable wish-list of airy promises. "Every pupil will go to a school where there is good behaviour, strong discipline, order and safety," it declares in hortatory prose, as if this was something none of us working in a school had ever thought of. And no doubt there will be thunderous applause when parents learn that they are to receive brand new home-school agreements. Then there's the guaranteed one-to-one tuition if your child isn't making required progress. The idea of making this a "guarantee" should put a smile on the face of every lawyer in the land. They'll think they've turned into bankers.

And if I'm sounding uncharacteristically cynical for the first day of a new year, I'm not debunking idealism. It's what brought many of us into the teaching profession - the notion that we could play a small part in transforming young people's lives, just as some great teachers did for us.

Instead I'm raging at the underlying lack of trust. Take bullying. I imagine we all think bullying is a bad thing and we do lots to stamp it out of our schools - surveying pupils to see how much of an issue it is, having staff and older students on duty, creating safe places for vulnerable youngsters who want to talk to someone, eliminating those end-of-the-field no-go zones of our own childhood.

The Government's idea on bullying: require schools to report their bullying rates to the local authority annually. What on earth can be the mentality behind this other than a miserable assumption that only by making schools put together lists can they be made to feel accountable? And isn't there something deeply depressing about a Government that set up a National College for its education leaders - something that is the envy of the world - then duly respects us so little that it falls back upon a bureaucratic box-ticking culture? We'll be clocking in next.

It's a mentality that has similarly distorted Ofsted. Instead of leaving each school wiser at the end of an inspection about how it might improve itself, too often experienced heads in good schools are battered by inconsistent teams and judgments. One problem is that Ofsted teams now aren't just required to tell parents what I suspect they most want to know - how good are the teaching, the standards and the leadership. Instead, just when we could start to demonstrate that schools were improving - that the system was raising its game - the bar had to be set higher in an oddly macho and unwholesome manner. Too many schools were being apparently deemed good or outstanding so it was time to knock a few off their audacious perches. And with it another swathe of details to be checked up on.

Most pernicious is the limiting judgment on safeguarding. Some inspectors are turning up with the vengeful glee of the zealot, reminding the head at the start of the inspection that if there is a mistake on the single central record of staff, it's all over. It's a swaggering, finger-wagging approach that quite wrongly equates administrative error with a lack of care for children.

So, like Peter Finch in the great 1970s movie Network, maybe 2010 should be the year when we throw open the windows and shout: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more".

Failing that, "happy New Year" will do. But let's hope that the "new" in the well-worn phrase delivers something different this year: a sense of trust.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher, King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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