It's a cock-up, not a conspiracy theory

7th November 2008 at 00:00

It happened in a school not a million miles from my own. A former learning assistant - well experienced, well respected - had moved up the educational ladder and become a teacher. This erstwhile person has recently become provisionally registered, was on the authority's supply teaching list and is getting some work (but not enough to pay the rent). Disclosure checking had been completed in the last few months. References held.

A school in which the teacher had formerly worked as a supply teacher needed a learning assistant for a day and a half. Our one-time learning assistant and present supply teacher would have been delighted to do it. Work is work. It was a win: win situation.

The local authority's human resources section insisted, however, that, despite this professional's history and current status, a new application needed to be made for the learning assistant role. Moreover, the disclosure procedure must again be completed. It was perfectly understandable, when this person gained teacher status which required higher levels of qualifications and formal skills, that a new application for work and an updating of what, by then, had become an outdated disclosure process, would be required. Having done that, it is absurd that the same process should be repeated, so soon after the first, for a lower-level post.

This is either a self-serving bureaucracy creating work for itself (and job security) or levels of incompetence beyond past imagining. (I tend to the incompetence perspective, having learnt with maturity that the cock-up theory of history explains more than the conspiracy theory). Such an approach may facilitate completion of some pointless organisational tick-box but, like many current HR practices, it totally fails to meet the needs of service providers.

As a result, pupils with audited additional support for learning needs remained without a learning assistant when a skilled one was available.

If this were an isolated incident, I would laugh and call for improvements in a system which I know to be strained by many pressures. School after school, however, feels the pain of poor personnel work. Let me offer one explanation.

Once upon a better time, education departments had specialised personnel staff. They understood the needs of schools. Schools are significantly different organisations from other authority departments, especially in the area of personnel. Today, generic HR departments cover all council departments, know little about each and have no easy identification with educating young people, the daily purpose of schools, teachers' contracts or the rhythm of the school year.

They, therefore, provide an unsympathetic service. They are not, of course, unique. Corporate IT units and corporate finance departments have also left schools well and truly shafted in various areas.

We must ask whether local authorities can reform themselves and escape their current corporate madness? Or has the council system gone beyond reform? Have we reached the point where education should cease to be a local authority function?

Alex Wood is seconded headteacher of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh.

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