New items in the Bill could tip us over the edge

3rd July 2009 at 01:00

If I were prone to panic and anxiety, I would be having a nervous breakdown by now.

The new Education Bill - which was leaked all over the place before being published this week - holds many changes and could drive me, and headteachers like me, over the edge. Of course, it won't - because we are used to being expected to deliver countless policies, frameworks, strategies and "new" ideas while getting on with the real business of running our schools.

The most worrying aspect to come to light is the plan for the school report card. Its format has not yet been decided, but we know it will start with an overall grade from A to E, with some text to describe issues other than attainment.

We already know that many of our parents do not read the detailed information provided by schools and local authorities, so why should we provide more of the same? Most teachers have moved away from giving pupils a grade for every piece of completed work because we know they focus on the grade and do not read the comments about how they can improve the work and make more progress. Who will decide what the criteria should be for the comments printed on school report cards?

These cards will also include results of a parental survey, but it is not clear if this will be one provided and collated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families or one of those that most schools already carry out. So, in order to provide quality assurance, these surveys will have to be administered - or at least "marked" - by an independent body. This is going to be very expensive. Otherwise they are just going to have to... well, trust us. Now there's a crazy thought.

Alongside the plans for the report card, the Government has published some new research into parents' views on school accountability. They are reported to have "very high levels of suspiciousness, particularly about the contrast between the theory of how accountability and choice should work when choosing schools".

So, is the new report card really more about parental choice than making schools accountable? Is it just a response to complaints from parents that they are not getting their child into the most popular schools? I suspect this is the truth and the report card is a way for the Government to be seen to be doing something to help unhappy parents and deflect the discussion.

Parents surveyed felt league tables gave undue emphasis to academic achievement - above what they felt were some of the most valuable elements of a school: the "soft" measures related to their child's happiness and wellbeing. Parents also said Ofsted reports were very hard to read, and "generally not worth the effort". Yet it is still unclear to me how a school report card would be any better.

On the upside, the Education Bill promises heads less control from the centre. If true, this will indeed be welcome. The national strategies will be the first thing to go, and I am sure most of my primary colleagues will be glad to be rid of the straitjacket of having to deliver specific programmes at specific times in a very specific way. I'm sure they will also be happy to decide how and when to deliver these or similar programmes.

From my school's experience, the key stage 3 strategy (which became the secondary strategy) has been a useful framework. More importantly, we have worked with some very good consultants over the years. The strategies have also helped key professionals from our school and others work together to share information and ideas, and that can only be a good thing. But like most schools, I suspect, we have never slavishly followed any strategy to the letter and have instead figured out what works best for our pupils on the Isle of Dogs.

I still wonder what will happen to the consultants delivering training, development and hands-on support. I assume the sudden end to the national strategies is really a money-saving exercise rather than sound educational thinking designed to hand back responsibility to schools.

Among the other "new" ideas is one-to-one tuition, something we have been piloting in George Green's School for the past six months. Like most pilots, it was introduced quickly and within a very tight timescale. We have had a few problems getting it off the ground - particularly in finding enough experienced teachers to provide the tuition. But I think it will help to address some aspects of underachievement for some pupils.

Stepping back, the amount of change heads now face seems overwhelming. We've got the new Education Bill, plus the real possibility of a new government in less than a year that would enforce new policies, on top of a looming reduction in funding and - the cherry on top - a new "tougher" Ofsted framework. It's enough to make a grown woman cry. But in my heart, I know we heads will take it in our stride and just get on with the job.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher of George Green's Community School in Tower Hamlets, east London.

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