Let's learn from Alaska

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
A schools boss wants inspections to look at the community, not just results. He explains why to Phil Revell

Education's institutions need to change if they are to cope with the challenges of the 21st century. And school leadership requires the biggest changes of all, says Peter Traves, Staffordshire's director of children and lifelong learning.

"The problem with the current model is that it expects too much of any head," he says. "It's difficult enough to run a school. If you add to that the Every Child Matters (ECM)agenda, the extended school, the community links, the co-location of children's services - and you ask a single person to do all that -I think you're going to break them."

He speaks with some authority on leading schools, having been a secondary head for six years. His career includes time as an adviser in London and Shropshire. He has led Ofsted inspections and has been in charge of education in Staffordshire since 2004 and children's services since 2005.

The county has 334 schools with a budget of pound;619 million.

Traves concedes that the system has seen a lot of change, and says he is not criticising heads or teachers. "Heads will quite rightly say, 'Hold on a minute, we do a bloody good job day in, day out', and they do. But I think they often do a good job in spite of rather than because of the institutions we have," he says.

A trip to Alaska last year helped to focus some of his thinking on the nature of school relationships with the communities they serve.

"The education system in much of Alaska was catastrophically bad," he says.

"The native communities felt demoralised. There are high levels of teenage pregnancy, abuse, alcoholism, all those sorts of problems. In a way that made it easier to do something completely different."

The new Alaskan model Traves was shown is aboutco-located services, linked to the community, with community leaders playing a more direct role in the school. The curriculum is more project-based and young people are given more responsibility for their own learning.

"They went to some of their communities and told them, 'We have failed your children, they have not succeeded, school hasn't inspired them, it hasn't lifted them, it hasn't raised them out of poverty. So what are we doing wrong and what do you want for your children?' I thought that was very brave."

He is not drawing a direct comparison. "We don't have a disastrous education system, but there are too many young people who do not enjoy school."

Traves believes that teachers would like to have more control over the curriculum, assessment and testing. More creativity, he believes, would give a more rounded education, with fewer children turned off by the school experience.

"But if you are a primary head and your reputation depends on your key stage 2 results, you are going to keep the focus tight, and that's the problem. Heads are passionate about wanting to do the best for their children, but they feel trapped."

In his view, the school inspection system has to bear a large share of the responsibility for this situation. "Schools have to survive and so do heads, but the evidence is that a high proportion of heads who go into a category are out within a year or two. They might get some package, but it's a pretty dispiriting, demoralising way to end your career."

Traves says some Staffordshire heads have been told that inspection teams have shown no interest in the Every Child Matters agenda. "Inspectors have said that ECM is not their focus. If that's the message they are giving to schools, then it is not surprising that heads are listening to Ofsted rather than the director of children's services.

"At the moment, the inspection regime is focused almost entirely on context value-added figures - and that is something they could shift quite easily without slackening standards," he says, adding that Ofsted teams need to start looking at schools within the context of their community.

Local authority joint area reviews already use this approach, but school inspection still treats each school as an island, cut off from others. He would prefer a regime that might criticise a school if it was seen to be not contributing to its local community or co-operating with other children's agencies.

"They should be looking at clusters of schools, areas within a local authority. Some of the issues identified would be educational, others about regeneration or leisure. That would allow local authorities to concentrate spending on one area."

The new model would involve much closer partnerships between schools, alongside changes in the way schools are led and managed.

"I think our institutions are too small and inflexible. If schools joined together as a federation, pyramid or a cluster they could buy in the specialist expertise they need in terms of staffing and support services.

"How many heads want to spend their time on financial management? There are people around who are better at it so why not give them the job?

"The local authority still has a monitoring and supporting role. And local authority leadership is about being the champion of the child and the family -the local community in Staffordshire buys around pound;500 million worth of education from our schools.

He adds: "But if the best thing in education is for local authority education services to wither away then that's fine by me."

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