Looking forward with hindsight

24th February 1995 at 00:00
It is February 24, 2005. Doulton High School in Stoke-on-Trent made history last month when it became the first school ever to win the coveted European Award for the Most Improved for the second time. Its head, George Eastham, retires next week. Our reporter had breakfast with him.

George Eastham brushes the croissant crumbs off his tie, and laughs when I ask him what makes his school so special.

"Look," he says, "the story of Doulton High School is special to me and this community but it's not unique. In the past ten years we - the people of this country - have transformed urban education. In the early 1990s the system failed more than half of young people in places like Stoke. Not any more. "

He pours me another coffee. "So what changed?" I ask.

"Looking back it seems so obvious, so tidy. . . but my God the revolution was a long time being born". He pauses and laughs. "At the time we all blamed the government with some justification. But it's clear too that as a profession we lacked ambition."

"What do you mean? Was the government right or wrong?" "They had two brilliant ideas in the late 1980s but their incompetence nearly threw them both away. A national curriculum, assessed nationally at regular intervals, was crucial to raising standards. Actually we had spent the best part of two decades trembling on the brink. You know emperor penguins? They jostle each other on the edge of the ice. When one falls in they find out whether there's a seal waiting to eat them. It was a bit like that. In this case government pushed the teachers in and they pulled government in behind them. Once they got over the chill, they realised the only threat was that, in their panic, they were clutching each other by the throat. Sir Ron Dearing calmed nerves all round and everyone began to swim rather than sink".

The phone rings and George turns it on. A woman's face appears.

"George, hi! We're hoping to test out our designs for the new community centre on some local people next week. Would any of your students like to be involved in the interviews? There must be some who still need the credits."

"Sure", replies George, "I'll put the word out on the E-mail. Thanks."

And he switches off the screen. "Geraldine's one of the architects who rent space here. Where were we?"

"What was the government's other good idea?"

"Delegating autonomy and accountability. School improvement became a responsibility for the schools. A blinding flash of the obvious, but crucial. "

"But you said they got that wrong too."

"They did. For too long they underestimated the ability of local education authorities to create a climate for success. Also some schools were given blatant advantages at the expense of others. The only justification for preferential funding now is if a school is prepared to take the risk of a major innovation. . . for example we won a contract to pilot the PLRV in 1999. "

"What's that?" I ask, thinking that professional use of jargon is one thing that never changes.

"Pupil learning resources vouchers. It's a voucher for educational resources which goes direct to the parent. Every child is entitled to one, though parents on above average incomes find their tax coding is adjusted to take it into account. Once it became clear that lots of information can be accessed at home through information technology, it was the obvious thing to do. They had talked about a voucher for years but made the absurd mistake of believing it should pay for a school place. Of course the school place must be an entitlement; the PLRV comes on top."

"So the government has got funding right at least?"

"Since its road-to-Damascus conversion in late 1995, yes."

"What happened then?"

"Early that year when the case for growth in the education budget, especially at primary level, had become overwhelming they imposed swingeing cuts. The Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, knew it was disastrous but the Prime Minister and Chancellor, tied up in an obscure argument about Europe, ignored her . . .

"Incidentally, it's hard to imagine that only 10 years ago Euroscepticism had a large following. Now it has joined Flat-Earthism and Luddism in the Dictionary of Synonyms."

Outside, the first pupils are arriving; some on foot, some on the solar-powered light railway.

"Fortunately," George continues, "one government policy sunk another. Having empowered governors, the government discovered that this army of 350,000 lay people wanted to improve schools, not to sack teachers. By that autumn the government realised that it was no longer politically possible to underfund education and get away with it. A great step forward for teachers."

"Yet earlier you said they lacked ambition."

"Absolutely. Winning the argument for funding was only half the battle. In parallel teachers had to raise society's expectations of the education service. That required published performance indicators. Teachers also had to raise expectations of themselves. Bluntly they had to set, and enforce, high professional standards."

"Yes but not as tough as we expected. Put together our knowledge of school improvement with the tremendous power of information technology; add to that delegated responsibility, popular support and additional funding and you had an intoxicating mixture. Once success became endemic, dealing with failure became much less problematic."

"But I'm told pupil-teacher ratios got worse in the 1990s."

"They did. At first it was due to lack of funding. Later in the decade it was because teachers realised that some of the workload that was breaking their backs could be shared with paraprofessionals. That left teachers to concentrate on what really mattered - teaching and learning. The long-term consequences is a much better respected - and paid - profession. We talk about pupil-adult ratios now."

He glances at his watch. "I've got to meet visitors from Japan now. They want to know how we do so well over here."

"Just one more question. Hasn't anything at all stayed the same?" "Oh yes. Teachers' commitment to children has never wavered. Neighbours is still going; and of course the name John Patten is still on everyone's lips."

"Yes," I reply, shaking his hand, "I don't suppose anyone then would have guessed he'd make such a splendid Pope."

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