In need of leadership;Platform

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Councils must do more than provide better materials, says Eddie Mullen who wants a greater interest in what actually happens in schools

Glasgow City Council may have bitten the bullet of school closure, but will it succeed in raising the quality of education in the city?

The stated objective of the council has not been simply to trim its budget but to redirect resources to raising standards of educational provision. Not only will class sizes come down significantly, but upgrading and refurbishment of school buildings will ensue. Yet another result of rationalisation or closure will be additional technological hardware for the schools in the communities affected.

All this is laudable and has even, we are informed, elicited praise from the Government's audit office, New Labour being keen on private finance initiatives. There is, however, a very strong element of wishful thinking in all of this; a pious hope that smaller classes, better buildings and the latest computer technology will, in themselves, produce the desired raising of standards.

The environment in which learning takes place is less dependent on material resources or the numbers of pupils in front of the teacher (however beneficial these are) than on the quality of professional competence and confidence of those engaged in the system and the expectation they have of their pupils and colleagues. Of no less importance in this striving for quality is the support, encouragement and guidance from the officers and members of the council.

The role of the council is crucial: it has been entrusted with responsibility for performance in its schools, a partnership which the last government attempted to destroy. If this partnership is almost totally concerned with provision of materials and head counts of staff rather than the effective monitoring of what is actually going on in schools and ensuring that there is quality in the recruitment and development of teaching staff at all levels, then we can hardly expect raising of standards, no matter how many computers we requisition.

It is instructive to note the serious decline in the numbers of specialist subject advisers in recent years, personnel equipped to provide very specific advice for teaching and learning and who could effect the dissemination of good practice throughout a whole complex of schools while acting as links between the authority and its schools.

Patchy they may have been in their quality, but their posts and status were surely preferable to the "lean machines" dependent on tortured secondment from schools themselves.

All of the above would be of smaller moment if officers of the authority (known formerly as the "directorate") had a full and up-to-date knowledge of how schools were actually operating; an understanding which can only be achieved through regular, planned and casual visits to individual schools; visits with a purpose, not just to wave the flag but to see classroom teaching and talk with teachers and pupils. It is all very well to speak of the "autonomy" of headteachers. Whatever that can mean, it certainly shouldn't mean being left to do your own thing.

Related to, and underpinning, this whole question of monitoring performance is the part played by the authority in the appointment of quality people to manage and teach in our schools. Teaching remains possibly the only profession in the country where you can hang your hat on a pension no matter how incompetent or indolent you prove to be. Heads and principal teachers are selected by criteria, essential or desirable, while the personnel responsible for their appointment have probably never seen them in action, or queried the record they have in their current schools.

Good teachers should be identified at an early stage in their careers; encouraged and provided with the opportunity to advance their knowledge and competence; appraised at every stage. In a good authority, the work of such teachers would be known to officers long before consideration for crucial posts in schools. How currently would the authority know of such teachers? In the dear, dead days of yore, HMI might have known, but now even they are as rare as hens' teeth.

In the schools themselves, it is abundantly clear that the head and senior staff should not only be setting a high example; showing leadership (not least through being actually seen by pupils and staff every day) but also linking up with every subject department or stage of the school.

The arrival of development planning has made this an imperative. Just as it would be beneficial for officers of education departments to make regular contact with schools, the same benefit would accrue if those entrusted with the management of schools were to do likewise with their staff. If this were to be standard practice, then at least performance could be assessed on a higher plane than hearsay or bare statistics.

Schools are not failing because they do not have the latest technology, wall-to-wall tiling in the toilets or small classes; they are failing from a lack of leadership and vision - a situation which is not peculiar to Glasgow.

Frank McAveety, the council leader, and his colleagues are not out of the woods yet. They are not likely to resolve the complex problems of Glasgow in the near future. When they do, it would be sad if, after all this blood-letting, schools were still failing. The weakness of the partnership between the council and the schools should be addressed now. Meanwhile, the schools themselves could be tackling the lack of achievement in their own backyards.

Eddie Mullen describes himself as an "ex-heidie".

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