Sanding the sharp edges of freedom

18th May 2012 at 01:00
Michael Gove has given heads just what they want. Let's take advantage, says Roger Pope

I spent last Thursday lunchtime persuading Andy of the virtues of sandpaper. Funny the things they don't prepare you for on headship training courses. He had made a DVD rack out of birch plywood for his GCSE design and technology coursework. It was a complex design, full of sensuous curves, and the making had involved a lot of nifty work with a jigsaw to cut out all the slots for the DVDs.

And then he had stopped. As far as Andy was concerned, he had done enough - and he'd had enough, too. Martyn the DT teacher was urging him to put the finishing touches to his masterpiece by sanding and polishing it. No chance. Martyn clamped Andy's hand in a vice and pulled out his fingernails with pliers; he nailed his trousers to the workbench and refused to release him until he did what was needed. All to no avail: Andy simply could not be bothered, nor could he see the point in doing any more.

So we spent a lunchtime gently persuading Andy of the pride to be had in doing a job well, and how the attributes of resilience and attention would impress future employers. And then the clincher: a sanded and polished rack would get a grade C, not a D. A week later, rack sanded, rack polished, job done.

Andy is the problem the two Michaels, Gove and Wilshaw, are trying to solve. He has no hunger for learning, or even success. He has no sense of the millions of better-educated Chinese and Indian school-leavers breathing down his neck, sharp as new-minted banknotes, keen to beat him to the next job and win the next contract. Now, Martyn, the two Michaels and I are all on the same side on this issue. So why are Gove and Wilshaw viewed by most teachers not as Saints Michael but as the very Devil incarnate?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the government has given heads and teachers what they have always said they wanted. If the education secretary asked what he should do to improve schools, most teachers would reply: "Give us more money and leave us alone." Most heads would say the same, meaning: "Leave us to run the schools and stop interfering."

Well, that's exactly what the government has done. Under Labour there was a massive uplift in resourcing, and under the coalition heads can now be kings of their own academies. The government has effectively thrown down a challenge to schools: "We want 'Andy' to succeed. You say you know how to do that best. OK - do it."

The reason this is still not universally popular among teachers is because of the demand for higher standards that comes along with this freedom. In giving away power, the government has left itself with very few policy levers it can pull to influence what happens in schools. It can change Ofsted frameworks and it can change benchmark exam measures, and that's about it.

Teachers do not see these as justifiable increases in expectation that will ultimately help to persuade Andy to raise his game, but as an expression of dissatisfaction with what they are doing. It is an externally imposed mantra, like that of Animal Farm's Boxer: "You must work harder!" And alongside is the threat of what will happen if you do not. Zap! We'll sack you under fast-track capability. Pow! We'll force you into an academy chain. Watch out, there's a free school behind you!

Arguably, this stick-and-carrot is fair enough and a very grown-up way of doing business. You've asked for the freedom to run your schools and teach in the way that you want to. Very well - you can have the freedom under academy status. But if you screw up, then on your own head be it.

We are part-way through a bold educational experiment, and as with any policy the implementation is often harder than the initiation. I just hope Gove remains in post long enough to do his sanding and polishing.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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