Teaching schools are even better than chocolate

6th May 2011 at 01:00

There was a time when the Easter holiday was all about rolling around in piles of brightly coloured foil, with chocolate all over my face. Not this year; my mind has been on a more pressing matter. While you were waiting for that kiss on the balcony, I was worrying about the clock ticking towards midnight.

Not that I minded if Wills turned into a frog. My concern was for the approaching deadline of the application process that dominated this Easter: teaching schools.

This is very revealing about the changing nature of headship, the way this Government operates and today's school priorities. There was a time when a head's working rhythm was little different from a teacher's: full-pelt during term time, stressed out dealing with the vagaries of challenging adolescents, then a sudden stop and the first ferry to France for the hols. But no more.

The applications for teaching-school status opened on the Monday of the last week of term and closed at the end of the first week back. Take out holidays and bank holidays, and that left nine working days to put together an application involving an alliance of schools for the most important initiative of the year. Was the timescale met with a chorus of protests? Au contraire. Interest was so high, the National College had to increase the number of information sessions to cope with demand.

This is the new pace of life. It is the pace of this change-hungry Government. The idea was floated in the autumn white paper, applications opened just before Easter and, by the summer, up to 100 schools will be designated. In his autobiography, Tony Blair regretted the wasted years of his first term as prime minister, when he spent too much time pleasing people and not enough time leading. David Cameron is clearly more Blairite than Blair. In fact, his whole public service reform agenda is just what Tony wanted, if only nasty Gordon Brown had let him have his way. The teaching-school initiative is very much part of that thinking.

Teaching schools are modelled on teaching hospitals. They will have responsibility for developing new models of initial teacher training and for ensuring high-quality programmes of continuing professional development for staff in their alliance of schools. Their remit goes beyond that of teaching hospitals in also having a role in brokering and providing support for underperforming schools. The Government envisages 500 such schools across the country, so each will engage with around 40 other schools to ensure all are part of an alliance.

I mentioned earlier that this initiative tells us about the changing priorities of schools. There are still some that think of themselves as little islands who can do their own thing without worrying about anybody else. Those with an eye to the future do not. They are watching the shifting tectonic plates and positioning themselves for the new landscape.

The bedrock of local authorities has been swept away by the wave of change, as if mere sand dunes. The pinnacles of the universities are under siege. The Government sees teaching as a craft, not a profession, and prefers to see teachers trained as apprentices on the job, not as dilettantes being filled with the latest trendy theory by left-wing, pipe-smoking hairies who have never done an honest day's work in their life.

I find the distaste for the theoretical underpinning of pedagogy bizarre. You would not show a doctor how to saw off a leg but omit to teach her anatomy, and although the University of Kingsbridge does have a certain appeal, teaching schools will continue to work in close partnership with higher education and local authorities, too.

All this is masterminded by the National College, with help from its friends at the Training and Development Agency for Schools. At some time during the spending review, the National College must have been a tempting target. Spawned by the last government, housed in flashy buildings opened by Blair himself, what better way to symbolise the new austerity than by razing it to ash? Building on the success of its National Leaders of Education programme, it is thriving as other quango-like creatures are killed off.

Think about some of the quite remarkable implications behind all this. Steve Munby, the National College's chief executive, describes teaching schools as "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future". It is the educational equivalent of GPs taking strategic responsibility for health care in their area.

Yet, I hear not a whisper of objection from heads, who, on the contrary, are actively seeking the new role. It's not the money - #163;60,000 per teaching school will not go far. It's what Munby always refers to as the moral purpose, the desire to have the widest possible impact on the life chances of as many kids as possible. It must be worth missing out on Easter chocolate for that.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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