Nice work if you can get it

7th July 2000 at 01:00
In the wake of the revelatory HayMcBer report on what makes an effective teacher, Mike Kent asks: what's the point of consultants?

Your education department not running smoothly? Failed an Ofsted? You're a headteacher and can't sort out your impossible workload? Simple, say the consultants. Invest in our services and your problems will be solved overnight.

WellI in a few days, then; but only long enough to make an honest bob or two.

True, our agency might not be experienced in the field we're supposed to be investigating, but we learn very quickly, you see, and we're bound to have some computerised documentation on file that can be tickled around a bit to personalise it for your particular situation. We won't tell you that, of course, but we assure you it'll look smashing printed on our heavy paper and put inside glossy covers.

Consulting the consultants is almost a daily occurrence, and now we learn that HayMcBer, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment and keen to earn a crust in the education market, is telling us what makes an "effective teacher" - at a possible cost of pound;2,500 a day for the project leader. A nice little earner, as Delboy in Only Fools and Horses used to say. I've been fascinated recently to find out just how bountiful the world of consultancy actually is. When the local education authority sent me a health and safety consultant a while ago after a minor disagreement about the fire alarms, she condemned all my computers because they weren't made this morning and then offered to do a three-day risk assessment for me at pound;450 a day. My admin officer hauled me to my feet after I'd collapsed with shock, but by today's standards it would seem this fee was cut-price, bargain-basement stuff.

Earlier this year the LEA tried again. My school is seen as a very popular and stable one with no "serious weaknesses" that might cause troops to be sent in and staff demoralised even further. Nevertheless, schools must have regular health checks, and since the LEA had got rid of nearly all its inspectors after an Ofsted-enforced economy drive, I was told a private education consultant would be coming to help me "set targets and things".

I suggested that the consultancy fee could be sent to the school instead, as funds had dried up for our school environmental area project and those funn little things called children could benefit directly.

Targets won the day, and a very earnest consultant duly arrived at school. I asked him about his qualifications for the job and he said that although he'd been a secondary head, he didn't really know anything about primary education. He was, however, jolly willing to learn.

I spent much of a day showing him each class and talking in depth about our school philosophies. He wrote copious notes, took away lots of our documentation, and said he'd be in touch shortly with some ideas. A week later, I received a long letter regurgitating everything I had told him, though sadly he hadn't added any fresh ideas of his own. I declined another visit, and I'm expecting a letter from the LEA any day now, thanking me for saving them a fortune.

Though I'm too busy to get to meetings very often, a colleague on a recent course recalled how she'd been under great stress trying to cope with the multitude of demands from the DfEE and LEA. Desperate, she'd hired a small consultancy firm to advise. At the end of the exercise, a hefty document was solemnly passed to her, indicating that she would benefit from employing additional part-time office assistance. Unfortunately, the consultancy fee promptly scuppered that idea for another year.

What a shame I hadn't met her before the course; I'd have advised her to skim through her piles of post, put most of it in a huge pending tray, and then go and listen to some children read, because if anything is really essential somebody will ring you up and ask why they haven't heard from you. I could have put it all in a glossy booklet and still only charged her a fiver.

Thank heavens, though, for the spark of reality that occasionally shines through. A local LEA employee visited me recently, a lady who's been of great help to local schools and has her feet planted firmly on the ground. The previous day, she'd been at a meeting with one of the consultants currently advising her department, and been driven crazy with discussions about strategic co-ordination of tasks and targets. "I'm sorry," she said, moving rapidly towards the door, "I've got to go." "Oh?" asked the consultant. "Why is that?" "Because," she answered, "I've got some real work to do."

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, London borough of Southwark

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