The superheads fall back to earth

7th April 2000 at 01:00
FROM toddler time on, children need to know the bottom line for acceptable behaviour. The effective parent has to be able to say (and mean) "if you kick that dog (or your brother or me) once more - you will be punished". With normal luck and consistent parenting, consideration for others becomes internalised as adult rules give way to self-control.

Kids who have never experienced effective boundaries are one of education's most enduring problems. They are the minority who can wreck or diminish the quality of schooling for the majority and inflict unbelievable stress, hassle and demoralisation on staff.

South of the border the latest policy for turning around failing schools has received a major setback. "Fresh Start", whereby schools are "reinvented" with new names, new money, new staffing and a new beginning, could be said to have imploded when three out of the 10 superheads drafted in to turn the schools around resigned within one week.

One of these schools has more than a third of its roll judged to be so disruptive, difficult or backward that they need special supervision. A gang roamed the corridors disrupting lessons, abusing and assaulting teachers. Another is saddled with 400 of the toughest and most deprived children in the country. In the third, a teacher was knocked out by a flying brick, staff feared to walk the corridors and pupils used the new computers to find porn on the Internet.

Observers suggest three principal contributory causes of such anarchy. First, a critical mass of the disaffected - perhaps up to 40 per cent in one school. Second, the Government's own legislation severely and ludicrously limits heads' power to exclude. And third, some local authorities fail to allow a free rein. In one case a nervous council sent in a retired head to shadow and ultimately undermine the authority of the "superhea".

Drastic action is certainly required. Two months ago, Education Secretary David Blunkett admitted that "the comprehensive system has not delivered . . . what the 21st century requires".

His response is the most blatant - and welcome - backtracking in the history of socialism. "Fresh Start" is followed in England by firm proposals for departing from the postwar comprehensive ideal. Pilot city academies are to be modelled on American charter schools - and on the city technology colleges introduced by the Tories.

The academies will have city-wide catchment areas and each will have its own specialism. They may be financed and run by business, churches, voluntary organisations, parents' groups. They will enjoy extra funding and much latitude.

There will be freedom to vary curriculum, structures, and admissions policies. Freedom to pay more. Freedom from local authority control, just like Jordanhill School in Glasgow. Broad options and diversity will replace one-size-fits-all uniformity.

The comprehensive model here - even for Scotland's inner city schools - has a little longer to run. But the Executive wants more enterprise in schools and is looking outward to closer involvement by Scottish firms.

With a view to making employability a key test of school effectiveness, every employer in Scotland is to receive a copy of HMI's Education for Work report. This will be welcomed by businesses like the small company in Glenrothes whose chairman said on radio the other day that supply-led schooling was "not good enough: there's not enough numeracy or life skills".

The Executive may be knocking on an open door. The CBI Scotland has just unveiled its own proposals to bring business entrepreneurism and leadership into schools in order to provide professional management and let teachers concentrate on teaching.

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