It's time the Government loosened the apron strings

24th March 2006 at 00:00
The problem with the education bill is not the value it places on greater freedom for schools, but that the Government has taken nearly 10 years to see the light. The evidence was readily available in the mid-1990s that genuine independence was the crucial factor in raising standards. What's more, it was clear even then that schools with responsibility for their own destinies were much more likely to be motivated to innovate and try out new ideas.

From a headteacher's point of view there were three things on my wish list at that time: we needed more resources after the remorseless cuts of several years; the youthful Ofsted was clearly unnecessarily wasteful of energy, time and money and needed to be a leaner and more positive support to schools; and, whatever one felt about grant-maintained schools, their experience had demonstrated that schools were capable of taking a large measure of control over their own affairs. I suppose I can take some solace from the fact that, a decade later, all these things are finally being acted upon, but it is desperately disappointing that it has taken so long.

Party political points aside, what concerns me is the negative impact, in my experience, that politics has had on education.

In a climate where "education, education, education" is the mantra of the Government, it is obviously important to debate why this should be so. Some people hark back to the good old days of the 1970s when the last thing governments seemed to want to do was get their hands dirty in the day-to-day running of the education system; they were happy to let local education authorities take care of it. But my recollection of that time is that we desperately wished the Government would show some meaningful level of interest. Surely government involvement, despite the baggage of posing and prancing, initiative overload, numbing bureaucracy and lack of trust which seem inseparable from it, is better than virtually no communication at all.

To return to my wish list of 10 years ago, resources have improved incomparably, both in terms of cash and buildings, a factor that in itself brings greater freedom and independence. The downside is that, for all the extra money that has gone directly to schools, more has been wasted in the system, in the myriad initiatives and accountability structures, and in the huge resources that have been funnelled inefficiently through local authorities. The Government, of course, would protest that this is not true.

In terms of Ofsted, at last we are returning to something like the system we had before the whole thing started, and the past dozen years will be looked back on as an extraordinarily wasteful and stressful way of securing small improvements in some areas. The most telling illustration of government's failure to work co-operatively with schools was when New Labour not only expanded a system that was universally mistrusted, but retained its figurehead, Chris Woodhead, when it would have been far easier politically to dispose of him.

So far as genuine independence is concerned, experience tells that once schools have the taste, through foundation or specialist school status, for example, they rarely relinquish it. There is thus a great reservoir of experience both of individual schools being free to make their own decisions on most issues, and of those schools working effectively together in co-operative partnerships.

The neanderthal presence within government ranks which threatened the success of the education bill in the House of Commons has been powerful enough over the past decade to ensure that local authorities were given a new lease of life, and resources to match, when any rational analysis of their effectiveness shows this was anachronistic. Let's hope that the bill becomes law without too much fuss, and that governments allow heads to determine their schools' futures and education professionals to do the experimenting.

John Claydon John Claydon recently retired as head of a Monmouthshire secondary school

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