Markets at work

1st November 1996 at 00:00
There are many frayed strands to unravel in the tangled stories of the two schools which have become this week's media victims.

Both The Ridings in Calderdale and Manton junior in Nottinghamshire are suffering from conflicts - or weaknesses - in central and local government policies as much as from the activities of staff, pupils, parents or governors. Whatever you think about the role of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers in precipitating the current crisis - and most teachers hold strong views for or against - Nigel de Gruchy didn't lead his union into it all on his own. He didn't need to with the rest of the supporting cast available.

The search for scapegoats is on, but there is already a strong case to be made against the Government's own so-called reforms. The breakdown now taking place in these unfortunate schools is the predictable consequence, either of the market philosophy in action, or of confusion about who is in charge. Anyone who thinks that the new powers for schools to select or suspend pupils promised in this week's Education Bill will do anything to reverse the trend towards increasing disorder is not looking at the evidence.

There were plenty of warnings in this paper and elsewhere that the creation of city technology colleges, grant-maintained schools and specialist schools with selective streams would lead to local hierarchies, with those schools without privileged status struggling at the bottom of the heap. The market argument has been that standards nurtured, and funded, at the top of the heap would "trickle down", because the less favoured would be forced to shape up, or go to the wall. And in a way you could say that both arguments are being proved right, since the apparent collapse at The Ridings looks like the market mechanism at work, though another verdict might be that it would take a super-human staff to prevail against the local odds forced on them.

The Ridings is not the only school struggling against such circumstances. Pat Collings in the next column writes from a community school serving its own socially dislocated housing estates, and similarly creamed by GM and other schools, but which nevertheless manages to improve its exam scores and chalk up other successes. But the colossal effort required from head and teachers in such circumstances is almost beyond the call of duty, and Ministers simply have no right to expect it. And The Ridings has been handicapped from a very shaky start. The Calderdale local education authority has not served it well. With political power regularly hung and the former education officer pushed out during the negotiations to amalgamate two failing secondary moderns, neither politicians nor officers seem to have got a grip on the new school's need for priority care or even a lick of paint. And then Government policies took over.

A high proportion of the pupils on the NASUWT's alleged hit-list for exclusion had already been excluded or otherwise rejected by local GM schools. It is all very well for Gillian Shephard to cast doubt on the quality of teaching at The Ridings - in any case we await the inspectors' verdict - but questions on the willingness of GM teachers to take on the hard cases are equally in order.

Meanwhile the Manton saga continues, with a regrettable school closure; NASUWT, the head, governors and parents on collision course, and no-one in charge. Here again Mrs Shephard has tried to pin blame for inaction, this time on the local education authority, but its education chairman Fred Riddell can with justice complain that his powers have been taken away from him. Although both the LEA and the Education Secretary have last resort powers to step in, it is not clear when these are triggered. Is it when the head closes the school on health and safety grounds, or when the teachers close it on strike, and all for fear of a troubled 10-year-old?

Here again we see Government policies coming home to roost. Determined to take power over schools away from local authorities, legislation has divided it instead between heads and governors in the naive belief that they would support each other and Conservative imperatives, but without any guarantee of the necessary experience or training. The result is increasing confrontation, and a rising crescendo of criticism from heads and OFSTED that governors are not up to the job they are not paid for. Sometimes they are right, but often not. But the Government laid onerous duties on them without thinking through the proper distribution of powers.

This week has seen a political pantomime featuring corporal punishment, Labour's compulsory home-school contracts, and yet more selection and exclusion. Surely it must be obvious by now that such a scenario offers nothing to raise standards for all, and could tip more children into violence?

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