One school's success means relegation for another

20th June 1997 at 01:00
You can't get away from footballing metaphors. Michael Barber, on The TES back page might have thought he had cornered the market. But last week Ted Wragg in the same spot described Tim Brighouse as Chris Woodhead's "tight marker". And before that the chairman of an industrial tribunal, hearing the case of a sacked London head, said that headteachers have become like football managers.

Liza Minnelli used to sing that life is a cabaret. Now, it's a football match. You are judged by results; excuses (the ref was against us, the weather was bad) are for wimps. After a bad run, you must change tactics; one week you will be told to play a fancy, short-passing game, the next to get back to basics and boot the ball upfield.

That's a fair description of life in schools in the 1990s. As the former editor of a national newspaper, I have a pretty good idea of how heads must feel when they are up against it. My job, too, was compared to a football manager's and I was judged by results - circulation figures. Anything I did seemed to have minimal effect. I could dream up arresting features, get amazing scoops, write bold editorials, design dramatic front pages. But the big circulation leaps came from television advertising campaigns, free offers, price cuts and extracts from books about the Royals. Rivals such as the Sunday Times could afford these; the Independent on Sunday which I edited could not.

I suspect that many inner-city heads feel similarly frustrated. The odds are stacked against them. Schools in more salubrious areas cream off the brightest pupils and the most supportive families. Ambitious teachers steer clear because they don't want to be associated with failure. Costs are higher (more vandalism, more need for security measures), opportunities for increasing revenue lower (few local businesses to offer sponsorship, few parents who can afford to contribute much to fundraising efforts).

I'm not surprised that some heads have been tempted to measure their success against criteria other than test and exam results. As my newspaper's circulation fell, I convinced myself that the figures didn't really matter. I was producing an intelligent newspaper, which was too good for the common herd; if sales declined, the customer was wrong not me. In the same way, heads sometimes convince themselves that reading ages and GCSE grades are vulgar, petit bourgeois obsessions: the things that matter are aesthetic, moral, social and immeasurable.

Yet some football managers, some newspaper editors, some headteachers can perform miracles with the most unpromising material. By some mixture of leadership skill, vision and high expectation, they are able to turn round failure. Without necessarily compromising on the finer things of life, they can get the required results. Is there a way of defining these qualities, of spotting the men and women who possess them? The experience of football and newspapers suggests not. Neither has a specific qualification for the top jobs, on the lines of what is being introduced for heads. It is generally accepted that a fairly successful practitioner is best fitted for the leader's role, but we know that the most brilliant footballers or writers can often be the most hopeless managers or editors.

So, in appointing managers or editors, football clubs or newspapers follow their best hunches and, if they don't work out, they swing the axe and try another one. I suppose this makes sense for schools, too, and that we should have fixed-term contracts for heads - though whether we are prepared to pay them football-sized or newspaper-sized salaries is another matter.

But there is an important difference between schools, on the one hand, and football clubs and newspapers on the other. In the latter, ups and downs are just part of life. Failure is an inevitable corollary of success: if one club gets promotion, another is relegated, if one newspaper increases market share, another loses. To say, as a society, that "we want every newspaperfootball club to be successful" would be a nonsense.

Yet that is precisely what we (or at least our politicians) say about the schools. We decided, during the 1980s, that competition was the spur to improvement and that view is now almost unchallenged. But do we really understand that, in the system we have created, one school's success is another's failure? Hilary Wilce (the back page columnist who doesn't use football metaphors) once expressed exasperation with all this striving for excellence and said that she, as a parent, would happily settle for simple, quiet, consistent competence.

Alas, as a nation, we are so desperate for success, so anxious about the dreaded global market, that simple competence isn't enough. What we really expect from our heads is a kind of perpetual Hawthorne effect. Hawthorne was a plant owned by the Western Electric Company in Chicago in the 1920s. Output rose dramatically when new production methods were introduced; a few months later, it dropped back to former levels. The conclusion was that output had been bolstered by the experiment. Novelty and experimentation create a buzz, inspiring managers and workers to new hope and new effort. Even bad new ideas are better than none.

It looks as if Education Secretary David Blunkett and his team have decided to try a kind of Hawthorne effect for the whole nation. If all experiments work, as Hawthorne predicts, the only mistake the Tories made was to let up for a year or two. Announce homework centres today, summer schools tomorrow. Compel every school to introduce a literacy hour and, when that's run out of steam, introduce a numeracy hour. If people are teaching in small groups, tell them to try teaching whole classes. If they have open-plan classrooms, encourage them to put up walls. If they have lots of books with small print, make them get books with large print. And, meantime, send out hit squads and inspectors. It all looks pretty desperate to me. But then, according to all the international league tables, we're in the relegation zone. That's football.

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