Trojans, apathy and admirable NUT anoraks

26th September 2008 at 01:00

It was Saturday morning. I went into Kingsbridge to buy a nice pork chop at the farmers' market, but instead nearly punched a National Union of Teachers official on the nose.

We had published proposals to become a trust school. Staff and governors were on board, all was going well, when suddenly I came across regional officials from the union handing out leaflets, right in the middle of the town, opposing our proposals.

I demanded to know their names, challenged the accuracy of their leaflet, threatened defamation proceedings, and shouted and stormed before stomping off to spend the rest of the day in a rage.

This was pure headteacher-as-tomcat behaviour. Heads like to get their own way and dislike nothing so much as a challenge to their power. Strangers on my manor? Tail up, teeth bared and see them off.

At the time, I dismissed them as union anoraks who had nothing better to do. On reflection, I have great admiration for the way they were giving up their time to fight for a principle, even though I disagreed with them.

The trust school initiative is rooted in the Blairite promotion of diversity and autonomy for schools, the will to bury forever the bog- standard comprehensive. It marks another move from competition to partnership as the driver of improvement, while chanting the mantra of greater choice for parents. This is paradoxical, since the greater range of more distinctive schools still have to compete for pupils.

There was no real parliamentary challenge to this policy once the Labour left was reassured that admission by selection was not on the agenda. The response to our own consultation could be construed as implicit support or indifference on a huge scale: we received 23 replies from 1,000 families and 15 from 180 staff. So the NUT was doing us all a valuable service by voicing the opposing arguments.

These find a weakening of democratic accountability as local councillors have less influence on a school, and local authorities no longer own the assets. Staff are seen as more vulnerable when employed by an individual governing body; even though teachers are still protected by national employment agreements, trust schools are the Trojan horse of dastardly heads who believe you get the best out of staff by cutting their pay and slashing their holidays.

We have been a trust school since May. So what's changed? Despite our partnership with the pharmaceutical multi-national AstraZeneca, Year 7s have not been used as drug trial guinea pigs, and the First XV are not wearing shirts that promote Viagra. We do, though, now have the excellent role model of a young female scientist on our governing body.

Maths teachers have set up a project on volume, designing fish tanks with another partner, the National Marine Aquarium, and RIO, a community interest firm, has engaged us in an Pounds 80,000 project to develop social enterprise skills. The Royal Society for the Arts is supporting our Opening Minds curriculum, and Plymouth University the path of students into higher education.

Kingsbridge might be beautifully situated near the coast, but it is so remote that not even Ryanair has discovered us yet. We want our students to look beyond careers running donkey rides or waxing surfboards, so our trust is about raising aspiration.

Will trust status bring a shift in our students' experience? Only time will tell. Ask me again in 10 years' time.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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