Use the best tool for the job

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Self-improving schools will need the guidance of expert advisers to build on what has worked in the past, writes John Chowcat

Decentralising and deregulating are sound ambitions for education today, but difficult to achieve. Moving from central government "prescription" to school-led progress makes sense - but how do we actually make this happen?

We start with certain advantages: the dedication of classroom teachers and assistants, a Budget funding boost, and the start of a serious debate over future curriculum and assessment.

Yet, research confirms that schools only sustain improvement if they manage to build from the inside - encouraging learning by teachers, and by the school as an organisation, to help boost students' learning.

The powerful work of such major figures in the field of school improvement as Louise Stoll and John Gray points in this direction. If we are to get this right, an approach based on real research and precise skills development will be crucial.

The journey will be worthwhile if autonomous, self-improving, schools with professional teaching and support staff are the result. But there are simply no shortcuts available.

So recent Department of Education and Skills and Ofsted plans to form a "new relationship" with schools deserve discussion, not the knee-jerk dismissal given by some. They also emphasise practical considerations.

First, the foundations for teachers' continuous professional development, and their involvement in debate on future pedagogy, are overdue.

Second, we must provide effective support for isolated school leaders.

School standards minister David Miliband's suggestion that secondary heads submit performance targets for approval to an external "partner with current or recent secondary headship experience" raises issues.

Knowledge of school improvement is growing rapidly, but must be applied with expertise and sensitivity, as schools differ greatly and good practice is not easily transplanted.

The DfES National Standards for School Improvement Professionals specify skills involved, including an ability to "negotiate effectively, recognising and responding to the needs of different schools and individuals".

This contrasts with the skills that headteachers need which relate to the direct management of change within schools. The basic skills required of external advisers and headteachers are different, and a new function, encompassing the full range of these skills, may be hard to achieve. There is some, perhaps limited, local experience pointing to gaps in the effectiveness of otherwise interesting hybrid models, so a pause to look at options is justified.

The new Children Bill, which aims to combine children's services across and beyond local authorities, may also make it less likely that serving headteachers can help other schools become vehicles for the range of linked-up welfare, health and community services.

Indeed, the title of "headteacher" begins to sound odd for the type of overall school leader required by this emerging scenario. External "change managers" will be needed, but should be trained to help different schools adapt, work together and, above all, develop workforces to achieve this transformation.

Third, practical steps need to be taken to underpin plans for reformed Ofsted inspections. Shorter and more frequent inspections might help if schools embrace a genuine culture and revised format of self-evaluation.

Some already do, but others are not prepared for this shift, and will only get there with the careful aid of experienced educational advisers. Ofsted itself is not geared up for this kind of service.

In projecting changes to the size and leadership of inspection teams, Ofsted should not forget the exertions of its independent inspectors, over the past decade, in carrying out so many full inspections while generating few complaints from schools. They maintained the accountability of schools stipulated by government, and surveys have revealed their long working days and variable fee levels. Inspectors have generated considerable knowledge and experience in recent years and this need not be wasted as Ofsted moves on. Chief inspector David Bell has also shown a willingness to talk over these reforms.

Given the issues emerging, the DfES should also consult over the desired "new relationship" with our schools, with an open mind as to what actually works.

John Chowcat is general secretary of the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants

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