Just say no to an over-full agenda

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Schools will struggle to cope with the tide of changes happening this year, writes John Dunford

If the Government wants schools to implement its reforms effectively, it needs to declare a moratorium on change in this academic year. Instead of introducing yet another white paper and the 20th education bill in 20 years, ministers should concentrate on helping schools to embed the reforms already announced. When the Prime Minister knocks on the door of Sanctuary Buildings asking for more headline-grabbing initiatives, my new year message to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is, in the words of the billboard, "Just say no".

No school year has ever started with such a crowded policy agenda. Schools have to implement a full review of their staffing structure and a new system of responsibility payments for teachers in an extremely demanding timescale. The final phase of workforce reform, including preparation, planning and assessment time for teachers, must be introduced, monitored and evaluated.

Self-evaluation processes have to be made adequate for the new inspection system, for which heads must complete the comprehensive self-evaluation form (SEF) for the first time. One third of schools have to prepare for a visit by inspectors some time this academic year. Data collection and evaluation systems need to be reviewed, ensuring in particular that contextualised value-added scores are embedded into the process. A new school profile, which the Government is still finalising, must be completed. The "single conversation", conducted with the head and senior staff by a "school improvement partner", will begin in about 20 per cent of secondary schools.

Curriculum changes include the introduction of compulsory enterprise education at key stage 4. The Government believes learning should be more personalised and schools have to put that aspiration into practice. A review of key stage 3 is under way. A committee is looking at the best way to teach reading. Mathematics and English teaching will need to be reviewed in the light of the forthcoming change in performance tables.

Groups of schools are asked to form education improvement partnerships to carry out a range of functions, such as professional development, teacher training, work-related learning opportunities, special educational needs provision or courses for gifted students.

The 14-to-19 agenda demands collaboration to develop new educational opportunities and increase the range of courses. Schools must jointly organise ways of dealing with disruptive pupils and the recommendations of the expert group on behaviour will have to be considered. Targets on extended school opening hours must be met and new responsibilities for extended provision shared out. Some schools will be involved in complicated Building Schools for the Future or private finance initiative projects.

Others will be applying, or re-applying, for specialist school status.

Parents must be brought more into the life of the school and the quality of school meals improved.

Any one of these changes would be sufficient for a single school year.

Taken together, they represent a dangerously overcrowded agenda. Most of these reforms have a wide degree of support, but it is their simultaneous introduction that is giving heads sleepless nights. Implementation will be difficult enough, but how can each change be monitored and evaluated properly when so many are happening at once?

English education has become what educationist Michael Fullan describes as "a living laboratory of educational reform on a grand scale". But laboratories build evaluation into the experimentation process. Governments demand this of schools, but nearly always fail to carry it out themselves before introducing the next reforms.

No wonder the working hours of secondary heads and deputies have continued to rise (according to the recent teachers' review body survey), even though classroom teachers have begun to feel the benefit of the workforce reforms.

No wonder the number of applicants for headships is so low.

Thankfully, we are not yet at the stage where central government dictates every aspect of school life. Schools have their own priorities too. The challenges for school leaders and governors are: first, to make sense of the national agenda; second, to embed the changes so they are effective; and third, to establish and maintain the priorities of the school itself.

These priorities may require yet more change or they may be an attempt to link up discrete priority areas. How, for example, should the new self-evaluation arrangements be aligned with the school's performance management system? How can time be found for training for new behaviour management policies? With the statutory changes to workforce reform, what should the school do next to improve the worklife balance of staff?

The forthcoming white paper and education bill represent a real test for the Government. The Prime Minister said in the Queen's Speech that there would be an education bill in this parliamentary session, and no doubt Tony Blair wants to seal his legacy of educational reform before he retires. But recent government education acts have given such wide powers to secretaries of state that it is difficult to see what further legislation is required to deliver Labour's manifesto promises.

The Government has introduced an unprecedented level of change into schools in recent years and much of it has to be implemented in this academic year.

Ministers must resist the temptation to introduce yet more change or they might find it is headteachers who "just say no".

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

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