Storm out of blue skies

5th December 2003 at 00:00
A DfES paper on workforce reform proposes fewer teachers in the school of the future. William Stewart reports

Cutting teacher numbers to pay for support staff is at the heart of the controversial paper that offers a broad vision of the "school of the future".

The discussion paper Workforce Reform - Blue Skies - written by a Department for Education and Skills official - examines ways in which schools can provide "personalised learning" the latest DfES buzz phrase, familiar to anyone who has heard a recent speech by an education minister.

But the precise meaning of the phrase remains nebulous. The paper simply says that personalised learning "puts the learning needs of each individual pupil centre stage".

Easier to grasp are the concepts of introducing more learning technology, making management more effective, and promoting collaboration between schools.

It is the proposed staffing arrangements that look most unfamiliar.

At the extreme the only qualified teacher directly employed by a "school of the future" will be its head. Other staff could be bought in from agencies and seconded but need not be qualified.

When qualified teachers are used their time will be "ruthlessly focused on expert teaching, planning and pupil assessment". Other work with pupils would be increasingly taken by a "range of other adults" while support staff would play "increasingly important roles in direct teaching".

Personalised learning would be delivered through "a more varied and sophisticated use of school teams in the classroom".

There would also be differences in the organisation of school management teams - with non-teachers doing more administrative and managerial work.

More importantly the paper suggests changes to how much managers are paid.

The school of the future might see its top classroom teachers, if it employs any, being paid more than assistant or even deputy heads.

The paper's ideas on the workforce reform are far from new. They build on the debate that began in 2001 when Estelle Morris, the then Education Secretary, warned that there could be a shortfall of 30,000 teachers by 2006. She suggested for the first time that support staff with enhanced roles could relieve the pressure.

That concept formed the basis of the teacher workload agreement, signed by the Government and every major teaching union except the National Union of Teachers.

The "blue skies" paper takes these ideas much further than the Government has ever dared to in public, warning that the teacher supply problems identified by Ms Morris will not be solved by the workload agreement. To date the debate has centred on increasing support staff numbers rather than the teacher cutbacks suggested in the paper.

The NUT has always claimed that was the hidden agenda and, predictably, is now saying its stand has been vindicated.

The paper's author knew this was likely but thought its ideas would win support from unions that backed the agreement, who have been passed copies of it.

However with Eamonn O'Kane, National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers general secretary, describing the idea of reducing teachers as "idiotic", and ministers distancing themselves from the paper, it seems the DfES official behind it could be left out on his own.

MAIN POINTS

* The school of the future will deliver "personalised learning" through school teams including support staff

* Deregulation freeing schools from the need to have a full complement of qualified teachers should be exploited

* Teacher numbers should be cut to pay for a better adult:pupil ratio.

Targets for recruiting teachers should be replaced with targets for higher-level assistants

* Support staff will play bigger roles in direct teaching and teachers will become "ruthlessly focussed on expert teaching, planning and pupil assessment"

* Funding will be tight with new reforms paid for from existing budgets

* The best classroom teachers may eventually be paid more than school leaders

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