Take your pound;125,000 and pass Go

6th June 2003 at 01:00
David Miliband is enthusiastic about the money targeted at making schools better managed. He tries to convert a sceptical Nic Barnard

TAKING the lift to the seventh floor of Sanctuary Buildings, I realise that if David Miliband uses the phrase "making the difference", I may have to kill him. The schools minister has granted me half an hour from coping with the schools funding crisis to sell the new leadership incentive grant, explain what he really hopes it will achieve, and perhaps tease out some of its contradictions.

In his office, an animated and excited Miliband spreads his arms and leans forward. "Leadership," he stresses "is about making the differenceI" Uh-oh.

"... And making the whole greater than the sum of the parts."

I'm only on my first question. To be fair, the minister has more pressing things on his mind than this new pound;525 million programme. It is the week that school funding has exploded in the Government's face.

Nevertheless, he is hugely enthusiastic about the grant, "a once-in-a-generation drive to really support the most important people in schools - the leadership teams".

He doesn't just mean senior managers but leaders all the way down the school.

"We're not just talking about the inspirational John Harvey Jones figure who comes in at the top," he says. "The truth is that effective leaders may be extraordinary people but they embody very ordinary virtues. The one virtue above all is that they realise they can't do it all themselves."

It goes beyond simple management.

"Management is about making the trains run on time," he says. "Leadership is about deciding where you want them to run, how often and how many passengers they transport."

I prefer the bus, but get the point. So what does the Government hope to get for its cool half-billion?

"Our ambitions are as stated: that more kids graduate from the school system with the knowledge, skills and attitude to enable them to succeed," he says.

No figures, no quotas. Miliband claims there are no targets. What, not even from No 10 or the Treasury? When did Gordon Brown ever give something for nothing? The minister suddenly folds back in his seat, frowning.

"I think they want the same as we doI We always say we want education to be at the cutting edge of public-service professionalism. The Treasury and No 10 want to have the best education system.

"I always say the best lead the rest. This is about building on the experience of Excellence in Cities (the scheme that pushed extra money to urban areas) which shows that the best way to spread good practice is for teachers to tell each other about it, institutionalise it with collaboration between schools.

"What we had to persuade ourselves as well as the Treasury is that this money would get value added."

And Ofsted, when it starts judging leadership on its inspections, will be watching. It's a huge programme: 1,400 secondaries from sink schools to high- achieving grammars, each receiving pound;125,000 per year for three years.

Miliband defends this broad approach - "We're hitting a lot of the toughest schools" - and suggests that closer targeting would have been too bureaucratic, while grants for everyone would have spread the cash too thin.

"I don't claim it's a perfect match, but it's a substantial good effort," he says.

But isn't it bureaucratic anyway, with all these plans and diagnostic toolkits and collaborations?

"They're not describing it to me as bureaucratic," he says. "Headteachers meeting to discuss how they can help each other isn't bureaucratic. It's a positive development opportunity."

So, what of the apparent contradiction in a grant designed to encourage capital L Leadership but which requires plans to be submitted to Whitehall for approval?

The minister says a balance has to be struck.

"We'll take on the chin that we've put in place rules for this," he says.

But the toolkit is "a serious piece of work," and the DfES team are there in part to join up good ideas. As for the 64,000-dollar question - how many heads and teachers does Charles Clarke want or expect to be "taken out", in his famously succinct phrase? Miliband falls back on that old excuse: his boss was taken out of context.

There is apparently no target for scalps to be delivered to the Secretary of State's desk, but the minister will say: "A minority of schools may decide to make radical change and that's an important part of the LIG process. But the message that's gone out and that's been received in all the collaborative meetings around the country is that this is about trust in the skill of heads and leaders."

Pressed on getting rid of heads, he adds: "We've never got into that business."

Nevertheless: "We make absolutely no apology for saying that we are ambitious for the opportunities for children in schools where results are very low. It would be a disgrace for me to say we've reduced the number of secondary schools in special measures so far and it's the best we can do."

And then. It's about "moral purpose. Every child is special and has a right to develop their talent to the full. I'm not going to write off any child in the system."

So. It's about making the difference. Every child is special. Cutting edge.

Good practice. Value-added. And the best shall lead the rest. Take your pound;125,000 and pass Go.

The minister grasps my hand as I leave and urges me to visit schools in the programme where these ideas will really come to life. I will. I want to see someone making the difference.

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