Landmark worth saving or piece of meddling past its sell-by date?

4th June 2010 at 01:00

The writing had been on the wall for the National Strategies for a while before Labour announced last year that the initiative would be overtaken by a blizzard of new ideas.

Introduced under Tony Blair, the national literacy and numeracy policies were some of education's most ambitious large-scale reforms.

But as the tide turned away from grand, top-down ideas at the tail-end of Labour's reign, the #163;155 million, five-year contract changed hands. Under the current provider, Capita, the strategies have continued to attract criticism, and in opposition Education Secretary Michael Gove welcomed their demise. But there has also been growing recognition of their role in providing professional development for teachers.

So when the current contract ends in April 2011, should the strategies stay or go? And if they go, will they be missed? The TES asked seven experts.

Chris Pearson Head, Goldstone Primary, Brighton; former national numeracy consultant

People read (the strategies) as another name for government interference rather than something with a real aim. I think people will miss them more than they imagine.

There is a lot of expertise out there in terms of consultants. In the early days of my tenure at Goldstone we had a lot of really good support from them. It is not just about expertise but they acted as a real conduit for good practice between schools.

There is an inertia that those people helped to overcome. When you are a head there are so many other things to do that it can be hard to take something new on, even if it's good. But, it is different, when you had someone banging on the door saying: "Come on, let's do this." But that strength was its weakness, the feeling of obligation.

Some people thought they had to do everything - I find it bizarre, but some headteachers thought that. Some people almost had a desire not to do something because the National Strategies had said it. To be fair, some things were good, some were hopeless. HW

Richard Gerver, Independent educational consultant

Much of what the strategies have been briefed to do over the last few years is to help schools get higher outcomes in tests, (but) support for schools should be about tackling the quality of the process, not hitting national targets. I have no problem with there being a national body to provide consultancy for schools, as long as it is offering tailored support for schools. There are brilliant, talented, visionary passionate consultants working for the strategies who, if harnessed correctly, could provide that support.

There was a time when local authorities had resources and manpower to offer tailored support for schools. But the local authorities' role has changed dramatically - they don't have the people to offer that service and it is not really their remit. HW

Marius Frank, Head, Bedmister Down School, Bristol

There are positive and negative aspects of the National Strategies. On the positive side the initiative has been a fantastic mechanism for filling professionals' toolboxes. Whether it has been with the right tools is another matter.

Teachers have been able to reach into the toolbox, but there has always the danger they might use the wrong tool. Those who are astute only pull out what they need, when they need it.

The biggest issue is that the National Strategies have been associated with the government of the day, so there is a certain compulsion to use the tools.

There is also the feeling there have been too many tools.

But (the initiative is) a great one-stop shop. If the compulsion is taken away teachers will be able to browse it and cherry-pick. KM

Denise Yates, Chief executive, National Association for Gifted Children

The National Strategies staff are clearly trying to leave a legacy behind for gifted and talented education. But when it ends there will be no national presence - this is essential if we are to avoid a patchy experience around the country.

There are schools which are very good at seeing the value of treating gifted and talented children differently. But other schools and local authorities are not so supportive. The jury is out on what will happen next year, but it's something we are looking at very closely. We are particularly keeping an eye on local authorities. If the funding goes they won't be able to support schools. It's vital we still have leadership for teachers, training and support. KM

Lorraine Petersen, Chief executive, Nasen (promotes needs of SEN children)

The National Strategies have been excellent at providing lots of support, and developing national initiatives - for example, the Inclusion Development Programme and progression guidance.

These are things we don't want to lose, but we have no idea what will happen when (the initiative) goes. There's talk of a "central portal" for special educational needs, where teachers can still access the existing National Strategies materials. But it's doubtful if they will be updated, which is a shame because there's some very good stuff there. All this experience we can ill afford to lose. KM

John Bangs, Head of education, teaching union the NUT

I think headteachers are not aware of it (the end of the initiative) or are just becoming aware of the loss of dedicated specialists and the support that they have been receiving, particularly from literacy and numeracy consultants over the years. I'm afraid Sips (school improvement partners) are no substitute.

I think local authorities don't have the money, so that dedicated specialist support will disappear. It is a real threat to keeping up the high quality of literacy and numeracy teaching.

If the money goes to schools, they may see the argument of buying into that service but if they have a deficit budget then they won't be able to buy in and some heads won't see it as a priority. (The consultants') most important work was co-ordinating really good teachers who were really on top of their game and helping them connect up with each other. HW

Sonia Sodha, Head of public, finance programme, Demos think-tank

The money should be given to schools and they should be given the flexibility to spend it as they wish. But we need to hold schools more accountable and to make sure money is spent on kids who sit in the bottom 10 to 20 per cent of attainment spectrum.

The National Strategies can definitely be criticised for being top-down government instruments, but a lot of evidence on the ground is they were pretty positive. I'm not criticising them for the sake of criticising it.

A lot of teachers say they were very helpful, the problem was the framing of them as the Government telling schools what to do.

In practice a lot of what they were about was getting more professional development into schools, which did involve a lot of bureaucracy that could be cut out. But... it's good, principled stuff. HW.

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