Blair unveiled teaching reforms at an Essex school. Two years on its head gives his verdict. Amanda Kelly reports.
WHEN Tony Blair launched his proposals to revolutionise teachers' pay and working conditions at an Essex school two years ago, his entourage changed all the plans the staff had for the event.
And it is this "dictatorial" and "heavy-handed" approach that has marred Labour's first term in office, according to Dr Chris Nicholls, head of Moulsham high school, a 1,600-pupil comprehensive in Chelmsford, where 69 per cent of pupils achieved at least five good GCSEs last summer.
Although in sympathy with Labour's passion for raising standards, he believes the endless initiatives that have emerged from the Department for Education and Employment since 1997 have left teachers feeling demoralised and over-burdened.
He said: "That the Government is committed to education is beyond doubt and it does seem to have succeeded in lifting standards, although most of the efforts have so far been focused on primary schools.
"But their approach has simply been too prescriptive and over-the-top.
"Extra cash is provided, but only to those willing to do exactly as they're told, whereas I would like to have more freedom and creativity to use resources as I see fit. That said, we have enjoyed greater funding since Labour came to power and investment in school buildings is greater than we have had for years."
Bureaucracy is Dr Nicholls' other major gripe. While welcoming the philosophy behind initiatives such as performance management and target-setting for heads, he said the amount of procedure and paperwork that accompanies them is "staggering".
"We don't seem to be able to do anything in schools these days without filling out forms. I have been appointing staff to promoted posts ever since I ecame head 10 years ago and I was perfectly capable of doing it without all the forms, appeals and assessors that go with the threshold process. We are now living in a bureaucratic nightmare.
"The net effect of everything is that while there has undeniably been success in raising standards, teachers feel over-burdened and under-valued with little respect from pupils and society at large. It has got to the stage where nobody wants to teach any more."
Dr Nicholls, 50, believes tackling the recruitment crisis currently overshadowing the profession should be Labour's top priority in the run-up to the election.
Offering higher salaries and re-emphasising the importance of the teacher's job would be key to this, while radically reforming the Office for Standards in Education in favour of helping schools towards self-inspection would be another positive step. Dr Nicholls would also like to see an overhaul of the central funding system which he believes is unfair.
He is particularly against the Government's plans to extend to 1,000 the number of specialist schools that are rewarded with extra funding for concentrating on subjects such as technology, languages and sports.
Such a policy, he says, will inevitably create a "two-tier education system" with only a quarter of secondary children benefiting from extra resources at the expense of the rest.
On balance, however, Dr Nicholls feels that Labour is heading in the right direction and that Education Secretary David Blunkett has the support and trust of the majority of the profession.
"I don't feel let down by Labour and I have no doubt that they will win the next election," he said. "I just hope that the greater maturity of a second term will take away some of the crusading zeal that has left many of us feeling totally overwhelmed."