Tilting at windmills

14th March 2003 at 00:00
To argue for no change is not a realistic contribution to the debate over principal teachers, says Alasdair Macdonald

WHAT a disappointing, conservative and intellectually weak piece we are offered by the senior management team of Dunbar High ("Faculties won't do it", TESS, February 28). It is a mixture of quixotic tilting at gimcrack windmills of their own devising, of unsubstantiated assertion and of unenquiring thinking. They are arguing for no change.

In their concluding paragraph they ask for a formula-derived points allocation to permit schools to develop their own structures. This is what we have now. They eschew the "big bang" in favour of a "pragmatic" approach, which I infer to be evolutionary, which is what we have now. This is what has caused the rigidity and inertia which are features of the present structure.

The only point of agreement I have with them is the need for principal teachers to develop management skills along the lines of the Scottish Qualification for Headship.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the quality of the men and women who have formed Scotland's cadre of subject principal teachers. I was one myself. The curricular changes of the past three decades were implemented, in significant measure, by them. Within their ranks (as at every other level) there have been incompetents and saboteurs, but a large majority have earned, and justly deserve, the praise of HMI in Standards and Quality reports.

But such admiration does not preclude the need to examine the role of the subject principal teacher. While the post has provided undoubted benefits, it has in some ways been dysfunctional. This is no necessary criticism of the men and women involved, but of the structure and function. Indeed, the quality of the post-holders has been such that, in different structures, with different functions, almost all would have operated effectively.

Don Ledingham and his colleagues have set up an undefined conceptual "windmill" of a faculty, claiming it has arisen from a spurious argument that it will eventually cost less. They exemplify such a faculty with a grouping of subjects that would encompass more than a quarter of the staff of a secondary school. They imply that there are other "principal arguments", but give no more than another quixotic windmill. Having set up this undefined concept of a faculty, they immediately knock it over with a decontextualised, unquantified statement from a member of the Secondary Heads Association. As a member of the EIS, my opinion must be the right one since the institute is a more ancient, more representative, more educationally progressive and - important in this context - Scottish body.

They fall back on the undergraduate essay ruse of making a bold assertion, without checkable, supporting evidence, that there is "little evidence to support the idea that you change cultures through structural change". Of course, you can. It is not the only way, nor is it always enough on its own, but changing structures can facilitate cultural change. Parliaments for Scotland and Catalonia were structural changes and cultural changes have followed.

The essence of the Dunbar argument for subject principal teachers is about curricular leadership and, specifically, about curricular change. This is right. With pupil welfare, the curriculum is one of the two purposes of schools. Any argument about different management structures must be about delivery of these two.

The authors try to bolster their case by introducing and dismissing two ideas which, allegedly, are advanced as support for the undefined faculty approach. They posit the idea of reporting attainment from a cross-curricular perspective as a reason for moving away from subjects to this undefined faculty. Where has this idea come from? Secondary teachers are registered on the basis of their subjects and initial teacher education, for the foreseeable future, will be based on subjects. A concept of a faculty does not necessarily entail an end to subjects. There are schools with "faculties" and they still teach subjects.

Then they claim that the advancement of the idea of a faculty and of curriculum development depends on chartered teachers. They even concede that these ideas are feasible given sufficient CTs (though they doubt that there will be sufficient numbers of them.) A reading of annex B of the teachers' agreement shows that chartered teachers have no more responsibility for curriculum development than teachers. This is a strong argument. Why did the Dunbar team not put it forward?

erhaps it is because, were they intellectually honest, it would have prevented them from setting up another windmill, which is dismissed with a ringing statement that "at no point in the chartered teacher documentation does it suggest that they will be accountable for a department's results".

And here they have, inadvertently, stumbled on the real arena for debate about management structures.

The duties for teachers and chartered teachers are the same. All teachers have a responsibility for curriculum development. A key concept of the agreement is collegiality. The agreement is about professionalism. Where are the collegiality and professionalism of those "many PTs who are not selected for a faculty head position" and who "will step back from whole-school involvement and leave it up to those who are being paid for it"? All teachers are responsible for results, departmental or otherwise.

Having concentrated on criticism, I have not set out alternatives to the Dunbar arguments. The Dunbar team had the courage to set out a case and deserve the respect of other proposals for consideration. Such proposals would be based mainly on the ideas in the preceding paragraph.

Alasdair Macdonald is headteacher of Johnstone High in Renfrewshire.

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