Kelly loses her heads

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Secondary leaders respond to Education Secretary's speech with derision and disbelief. William Stewart reports

It did not need the noisy drumming of the samba band from Varndean school in Brighton to raise the passions of Secondary Heads Association members as they arrived for their annual conference last weekend.

They were already fuming at the Education Secretary's decision to ignore key elements of Sir Mike Tomlinson's report on 14-19 education.

The previous day's launch of Labour's mini-education manifesto, with pledges of parent power and "tailored" teaching in smaller groups, had not helped either. More funding would be needed to make them a reality, Martin Ward, SHA deputy general secretary, had said that morning, as he stood in for general secretary John Dunford who was laid low with a virus.

So it seemed sensible for Ruth Kelly to use her first speech to a teaching union to accentuate the many areas where SHA and the Government did agree.

She duly did so, listing the new relationship with schools, cutting bureaucracy and workforce reform - for all of five seconds.

The Education Secretary then turned to her 14-19 white paper. She accepted that "some" of her audience at the conference in Brighton would have preferred the Tomlinson diploma.

She would not dwell on reasons for rejecting it, but, she said: "I think we understand and respect each other's positions."

It seemed a moot point. But there was no time to dwell on that either as she moved on to parent power, a subject that The TES understands Ms Kelly had decided should be the focus of her speech.

In 3,000 words she made just seven references to heads, nine to teachers and 47 to parents.

Schools had the "responsibility to be ever more responsive" to parents and tailor education to individuals, she said. She would not prescribe how, but the best schools already did it and Ms Kelly wanted others to follow suit.

She had a "vision", she said, as her speech reached its finale. She wanted to see "an education system that truly responds to every child's needs and develops their potential".

It did not capture the imagination of the heads in quite the way she had hoped. "I feel somewhat patronised at being told I need to start thinking about things I have been doing and working hard at for many years," David Peck, head of Moseley school, Birmingham, told her.

He asked how the new Education Secretary could possibly think she knew better than the Tomlinson committee.

Her reply attempted to portray her vocational plan as being in line with what Tomlinson proposed and was greeted with laughs of disbelief. She took a deep breath and gulped from a glass of water as she prepared for the next questions.

Di Smith, head of Admiral Lord Nelson school, Portsmouth, told her that Labour's mini manifesto had raised parental expectations of individual attention to levels that could not be provided from existing resources.

"I look forward to you pledging these additional resources," she said. For several long sentences Ms Kelly's response did not address funding, merely restating her hope that all schools would do what the best were already doing.

As the muttering and rumbles of discontent became clearly audible, she stuttered as she re-sorted to reciting the increase in per-pupil spending under Labour.

Then suddenly sensing inspir-ation she enthusiastically ex-claimed, "workforce reform - absolutely excellent", and suggested that heads could find the money there. That did it. Ms Kelly had completely lost her audience. The "jeering" described by some education correspondents, who she once again declined to face, overstated it.

But there was open dissent, laughter and cries of "no" coming from what is traditionally the most polite audience of the teaching unions. The session finished with some SHA members holding their heads in their hands.

A speech designed to curry favour with middle England made the front page of the Daily Mail. Unfortunately for the new Education Secretary it was for the wrong reasons.

* william.stewart@tes.co.uk

WHAT SHA MEMBERS SAID: 'IT WAS JUST AWFUL'

Marsha Elms, headteacher of Kendrick school, Reading:

"She did herself no favours. I found it patronising and I actually felt sorry for her, her answers were so inadequate. It was just awful."

Tony Andrews, principal of Xaverian sixth-form college, Manchester:

"Her answers were superficial. It was an opportunity missed to win over secondary heads."

Geoff Walls, assistant head, Bay House school, Gosport, Hampshire: "She had an opportunity to say what her reasons were for not adopting Tomlinson and she bottled it. It didn't give me much confidence - there were people in the audience who were laughing."

Catherine Hughes, headteacher of St Bede's catholic college, Bristol:

"I have been to the SHA conference for many years and have heard all of the secretaries of state over time and I have never felt so disappointed and angry."

Ingrid Masters, head of Winton school, Bournemouth:

"I did not come away with any vision at all. She did not tell me anything that would inspire me and give me confidence. I wish I hadn't heard her."

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