Napoleonic superiority

14th December 2007 at 00:00

England would do well to adopt the coherent planning of the French, writes Don Lillistone. I once heard an official of what was then the DfES state that we are not like the "Napoleonic French" who determine their priorities and then plan logically how to achieve them. No, he assured his audience, our tradition is to develop our educational provision "by accretion".

Sadly, he was absolutely right, but I suspect he did not see the irony in what he was saying.

The central problem with accretion is that it invariably leads to instability. The provision of 16-19 education is a good example. As a result of unconnected initiatives, the Government is able to claim - without, apparently, seeing the inherent self-contradiction - that it wants more schools with sixth forms and more sixth-form colleges just at the time when the 16-19 population is set to decline significantly throughout the country over the next 15 years.

The destabilising impact of certain government initiatives has yet to be acknowledged, but it is evidenced by the disappearance of no fewer than 21 of the 117 sixth-form colleges that existed at the time of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Moreover, the accretion model also creates incoherence.

The 1992 Act incorporated sixth-form colleges and removed them from secondary education. This meant that a 17-year-old taking three A-levels in a school sixth form was counted as secondary education, while a 17- year-old taking three A-levels in a sixth-form college was further education. However, the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act has led to the recent creation of a small number of sixth-form colleges under schools regulations. So, a 17-year-old taking three A-levels in a 1992 Act sixth- form college is further education, while a 17-year-old taking three A- levels in a 1998 Act sixth-form college is secondary education. Doesn't make a lot of sense but that is where accretion leads.

It is important to draw attention to this anomaly as the Further Education (Principals' Qualifications) (England) Regulations 2007 came into force in September. Although the skills, attributes and personal characteristics necessary to be a college principal are exactly the same as those of a headteacher, we are now in the ludicrous position where a headteacher is eligible to apply to be the principal of a 1998 Act sixth-form college, but would have to follow the training for the new Principals' Qualifying Programme before being eligible to be principal of a 1992 Act sixth-form college.

On the other hand, the principal of a 1992 Act sixth-form college is not eligible to apply to be principal of a 1998 Act sixth-form college without first successfully completing the National Professional Qualification for Headship! The muddle could seriously restrict leadership appointments.

The same muddle has been created for teaching staff. There are now significant differences between 1992 and 1998 Act sixth-form colleges in the professional requirements for qualified teacher status, membership of a professional body (General Teaching CouncilInstitute for Learning) and continuing professional development, while the teachers are doing the same job.

Resolving these muddles will, of course, require significant additional work, which is another disadvantage of the accretion model. It is more effective to plan coherently and get it right first time.

It is joked that we have lived in a muddle for so long it is taken as the norm. I hope not. There are compelling arguments for a fundamentally different approach to educational development in this country. Our ministers would do well to look at the OECD tables of educational achievement, which they will see are dominated by countries that shun accretion and plan coherent national structures.

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's College in Middlesbrough.

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