Professor seeks to shatter 'myth' of transformational head

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Former school leader attacks five key cross-party assumptions underpinning education reform

The assumption that schools can be transformed by a successful head or a teaching initiative that have worked elsewhere is fatally flawed, according to a book being published next month.

Bernard Barker (pictured), emeritus professor of educational leadership at Leicester University, attacks these beliefs and a handful of others which he argues have underpinned Labour and Conservative policies on schools for more than 20 years.

Writing in The TES this week, he highlights five "myths" that he believes need to be shattered in order for real, effective change to occur in the country's education system.

Professor Barker says it a grave error to assume that:

- successful heads can transform underperforming schools into high-achieving ones;

- disadvantage can be overcome by effective and efficient schools;

- markets and competition can improve school results;

- centrally imposed regulation and inspection can ensure high standards; and

- "best practice" can be transferred from one school to another.

A former comprehensive head for 19 years, Professor Barker said he had brought his 40-plus years of experience to "bring as much withering contempt as possible on the ideas that have been placed upon us".

Both Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, and Michael Gove, his Tory shadow, have emphasised the importance of hiring successful headteachers.

However, Professor Barker cites US research which suggests that the quality of leadership only correlates to a variation in student outcomes of 3 to 5 per cent.

He is equally critical of policies that underplay the vast impact that the social background of pupils can have on a school.

Speaking to The TES he said: "Policies have been based on the same assumptions for more than 20 years, but there is no evidence that standards have improved.

"There needs to be a move away from the Government-controlled, test-driven system we have in place today."

Professor Barker said the school system is heading towards a "collapse" and that a drastic change in approach was needed - one that is closer to the progressive teaching methods that were vilified in the 1970s and led to chain of events resulting in the 1988 Education Act and the accountability system we have in place today.

In his book, The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform, he cites the BBC 2 series, The Choir, presented by Gareth Malone, who conducts outreach choirs run by the London Symphony Orchestra.

"He went to Lancaster School in Leicester, where boys had not sung for 40 years for fearing they would be branded 'gay', but by the end he had established a 100-voice choir. It shows what can be done by nurturing someone by their individual needs rather than focusing on results," he said.

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association for School and College Leaders, said: "There is an immense amount of evidence that schools can improve schools and that successful heads and leadership teams can make a huge difference to schools in difficult areas ... and I am pleased that the Government recognises this reality."

Platform, page 43.

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