Playing with fire;Talkback

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
The prospect of becoming a beacon has failed to ignite Dennis Richards's imagination.

So we are to be offered the opportunity to become a "beacon school". What does it mean? Should we use capital letters? Is it yet another back-of-an-envelope idea for which the last administration became notorious?

Certainly the scheme's launch late last month bore a striking similarity to the early days of the grant-maintained propaganda blitz. We - that is the chosen ones, heads and governors of schools listed in the chief inspector's latest report - were wined and dined in a glitzy, swish, upmarket west London hotel. Some governors I have known would never miss a "Going GM" junket; the lunches were always a treat and the mounting desperation of the speakers as the years went by was a rich source of entertainment. Last month's was more sophisticated, the presentation was slicker and the speakers more impressive. But will it work?

Lavish praise for our achievement from schools standards minister Stephen Byers and chief inspector Chris Woodhead (yes, really) was followed by a hectic photographic session. We were each presented with a splendid memento, in its own personalised little case, which no doubt will adorn our school foyer for years to come.

We had our buck's fizz at 10.45am, recalling wistfully that in previous years the reward for the heads of schools singled out in the chief inspector's report had been an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party.

We stayed, partly because we could not resist being part of "breaking" news, but also because for some of us it was a first glimpse of New Labour in action. The atmosphere was intoxicating; we were close to being famous for five minutes.

The cold douche of realism was not long in coming. It soon became apparent that the fundamental issue - co-operation or competition - had not been addressed. A generation of headteachers has known little else from government but an encouragement to compete, to reach the top of the pile.

Some have flourished, their "my school, my staff, my this and that" philosophy admirably suited to the spirit of the times. Sharing the secrets of success with a view to making more schools winners is an admirable idea, it's just very, very different.

The money will help (each beacon school will get up to pound;50,000). One thing never changes: heads can rarely resist extra money. But we've been used to spending it for ourselves, not sharing it for the benefit of others.

Back at the ranch it became clear that taking the Government's shilling will mean schools facing an uphill battle. Will teachers from successful schools spend long periods out of their own establishments? Will other heads accept the implied superiority of a rival establishment? (Already one colleague has responded to the initiative by inviting us "to give me your kids and your site for a year and we'll do as well as you".) It is also possible that schools are successful because of an ethos or a culture of achievement that has taken years to build; no quick fix will bring that about in every school. And how far will local authorities be involved? It seems almost impossible for weaknesses and strengths in the system to be identified without some overall co-ordination.

Yet one cannot help admiring an administration which is prepared to propose an initiative which fundamentally relies on the professionalism of teachers. It's the kind of trust we've been demanding for years. It is also an initiative backed by pound;1.8 million of new money. Time is short. We were given about four weeks to put forward a coherent plan. I am not sure we can do it, nor am I sure we even want to do it. Damned if we do and damned if we don't. Can I go to a Buckingham Palace garden party next time, please?

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan's C of E High School in Harrogate. It is one of 100 beacon schools chosen to promote good teaching methods

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