At last, authorities who care what teachers think;The Sweeney;Management

19th November 1999 at 00:00
It pays to listen to people at the chalkface. Headteacher Pat Sweeney explains why.

The education agendas for the Labour and Conservative parties are becoming increasingly indistinguishable. Labour's proposals for a second term in office in England and Wales are likely to include extension of public private partnerships, and introduction of voucher schemes for further and higher education. These may be very worthy initiatives, but they are hardly traditional territory of the Labour Party.

Through the dark night of the Conservative government, during which state education was systematically undermined and cynically starved of resources, teachers longed for a more supportive and fairer regime in which their work would be valued, acknowledged and rewarded. But now their optimism appears to have gone unrequited.

The Labour Prime Minister took time out from courting the hard-line Chinese regime to attack the "forces of conservatism" in Britain's schools. A consensus of machismo has developed in the south, with politicians and OFSTED united in a strong-arm approach to quality assurance. Teachers live in fear of inspection, and education authorities which don't match up see their goods and chattels sold off to the private sector. The statistics are demonstrating improvement. Quod erat demonstrandum. It must be working. The numbers say so.

A similarly combative approach was until recently emerging in Scotland, with politicians seeking to score politically at the expense of teachers and officials negatively briefing the press in the wake of inspection reports. However, a fundamental difference between the two political scenarios was promptly recognised. In England and Wales, the Government rests securely on its mandate to rule, as there is no alternative. The Conservative party has embarked on public self-immolation, and its elder statesmen, by mutual recrimination, appear determined to ensure that its credibility is reduced to the last scintilla.

It rapidly dawned on our political masters in Scotland that lack of support for teachers was an electoral liability, likely to stir up a gentle breeze, wafting welcome votes into the eager clutches of Alex Salmond and his nationalist lieutenants.

Thus, the current climate is conciliatory and we have politicians at national and local levels who believe in the work we are doing, and want to see our young people succeeding. They are keen to encourage involvement and promote consultation. Every way we turn, our opinions are solicited on the education bill, social inclusion, community schools and our priorities for education.

In education authorities, we have committed civic leaders and hard-working officers who strive to support and promote the work of schools. I can endorse without reservation all of the priorities and objectives listed in Edinburgh's service plan.

The council wants to raise attainment, improve teaching and make best use of resources. Everybody in Holy Rood will say amen to that.

Hopes were further raised by the initial utterances of Bill Clark, who has taken over responsibility for the audit unit within the Scottish Executive Education Department. He claims that there is more to life than grade-point averages and mean residuals, and that the emphasis should be on helping schools to achieve. Such sentiments are likely to have statisticians and arithmetical contortionists leaping off Victoria Quay, having lost the will to live.

Evaluations of schools have to take account of their circumstances and involve those who are being assessed. Mr Clark has seen elsewhere the effects of teachers and government beating each other up in the service of a political agenda. This experience should have demonstrated that energies channelled in the same direction are likely to be more productive. Scottish schools will wish him well and should soon be in a position to offer him a relative rating.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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