Only time will tell if we've been saved or goved

22nd October 2010 at 01:00

Computers are jolly useful things, but how they like to play tricks on you, the naughty little toys! How else was I to explain the email last month directing me to a web link which told me that Mr Gove had abolished the self evaluation form (SEF)? No more SEF? This must surely be as true as the scam messages from Nigerian businessmen asking to pay their inheritance into my bank account.

But no, for this is the man who has already said that "outstanding" schools need no longer suffer the indignity of being pinned out naked on a dissecting board by Ofsted. It is the man who says that any school will only be inspected for the things that matter rather than whether the size of their plugholes constitute a safeguarding issue. The white knight who has lanced the boil of the General Teaching Council for England (GTC), pricked the balloon of the national curriculum, and speared the academic diplomas stone dead before they were even out of the womb.

Surely we should erect his statue in every staffroom and brew tea to celebrate our newfound leisure as he chops away the bureaucratic bindweed that teachers have complained about for years. I detect a rather more muted response. The workaholic heads who spend their whole summer holiday writing the SEF are no doubt ecstatic, but others are muttering that self-evaluation is essential to school improvement.

There have even been articles on this very page arguing that "outstanding" schools should be inspected, because there is nothing like the threat of an inspector calling to keep everyone on their toes. Above all, uncertainty hangs over education like a volcanic ash cloud, with no one quite sure what the landscape will look like when it has cleared. We have been used to a succession of education ministers who have corralled us with regulations and bashed us with targets. As we emerge blinking from the darkness of the cave on to the sunny uplands of freedom, we do not yet trust what we are being offered.

Allow me to crystallize these feelings in a new word: gove (verb transitive). To mask one's true intentions, to stab while smiling cherubically. See: "Macbeth goved old King Duncan good and proper", or "he was such a good gove we never saw him coming".

So when we are told that the GTC has been abolished, we give a cheer for the triumph of common sense. When we then hear of Ofsted being scaled back, or the SEF dissolved, or the suspected demise of School Improvement Partners, we wonder if we are being goved. The mantra is that with greater autonomy goes greater accountability. Here schools are being given the autonomy with a reduction in accountability. How can this be? We smell a gove.

This is the feeling that came through strongly during our recent consultation on academy status. We received 350 replies from around a thousand families in our college, many more than the 25 we received when we consulted on becoming a Trust school. The punters may not understand all the details, but they sense that academy status is a big one.

The majority were in favour. Those against, and the large number of those who were undecided, articulated a common theme. They may be stuffing an extra half-million quid in your back pocket this year, but don't bet it will be there in the future. What are the drawbacks? If it looks too good be true, then it probably is. In short, they felt they were being goved but were just not sure how.

Staff shared the feeling but for different reasons. They were clear that they trusted the present governors and head (honest!) but worried about what might happen in the future without the protection of national pay and conditions. "This is too good for the college to turn down," said Jimbo, "it's the way schools are going and we need to be at the front. But I feel like a turkey voting for Christmas." Sometimes you suspect a gove but feel you have no choice anyway.

The problem for any new government is that it takes a long time for true policy direction to become clear. We did not know the true shape of Mrs Thatcher's handbag until well into her second term. Mr Blair did not know the meaning of Blairism until he had left it too late to put into practice. We sort of know why autonomy and responsibility might fire-up creativity and so raise standards, but there are many questions and few answers.

How can 3,500 secondaries and 17,000 primaries all be directly responsible to the Secretary of State? Is this just divide and rule? How does Government enact an education policy when it gives away the key levers of inspection and the national curriculum?

Leaders paint a picture of the future and then persuade people to follow them there. Mr Gove's picture has yet to emerge fully from the developing tray. The early glimpses are positive and may yet transform our school system into the best in the world. For now, we remain wary.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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