Talk your way towards success
The programme allowed for two hours of debate a day and the participants told us bluntly what was wrong and right. The format also allowed them to register their views systematically. Each had a keypad and could vote on a range of questions. The panel involved an international expert on school reform, leading policy-makers and two local heads, as well as Estelle Morris or Jacqui Smith and me.
The commentary on present policy could be summarised as: "We share the vision of a world-class service, we are glad there is a strategy; you need to recognise that working in schools has become a great deal more challenging in recent years; we are rising to the challenge but we need consistent investment and access to high-quality support. We welcome the extra funding that is coming in, especially when it comes straight to schools. We are enthusiastic about the literacy and numeracy strategies and we like target-setting. The issues that worry us most are teacher recruitment, the pace of change and excessive paperwork."
More than 50 per cent thought they received sufficient support from their local authority; just over 40 per cent thought central government provided sufficient support. Clearly there is plenty more for both local and national government to do! The Government's proposals to provide further lump sums direct to schools next March will help. So will the reform of the Standards Fund which, from next year, will be radically simplified.
The teacher unions and the media had even more challenging facts to face. Only 23 er cent of participants rated the unions' support for raising standards and just 2 per cent had anything positive to say about the media.
Learning from Success provided a mixed message on teacher morale. People feel under pressure, they are working very hard and can't work any harder; they would like much greater praise and recognition; and they hold the Government and the media responsible for the lack of both. People believe they are working in an improving service. More than 80 per cent believe their school has improved significantly or very significantly in the past few years. Around three-quarters are optimistic that standards will continue to rise. These figures are encouraging and suggest that the strategy is broadly right but that paperwork, lack of celebration and teacher recruitment need urgent attention.
The most fascinating debate to emerge during the week was about autonomy. Most heads want more of it. But, as some participants pointed out, this raises important dilemmas. For example, to succeed autonomous schools need to be part of networks from which they learn and take inspiration. As schools become more autonomous they need to play an ever greater part in solving the problems of the system. Government needs to get better at learning from successful schools.
The Learning from Success conferences were designed to deepen the dialogue between teachers and government about the future. They have begun a problem-solving conversation about the next steps towards the achievement of world-class standards. All the data from the conferences and much of the comment can be found on the web. To join the conversation log on to http:www.standards.dfee.gov.uklearningfromsuccess and tell us what you think.
Michael Barber is head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit