Waiting for the inspectors...;Viewpoint;Opinion;Further Education

12th November 1999 at 00:00
IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that the people with the least direct experience - civil servants, political advisers, politicians, consultants, researchers - know best how to run education services.

Perhaps it was naive to hope that universal truths would change with a new government. But optimism abounded.

We had thought that New Labour might want to base policy changes on evidence of best practice, and to listen to, and work with, practitioners. Instead we are overwhelmed with new ideas and directions from young policy advisers and old civil servants, spiced by ministerial opinion. Living with this disappointment is proving enraging.

At the moment, however, our anger is dampened by depression. It's easy to get depressed and defensive when your employer does not have trust or confidence in how you do your job.

Last week the Department for Education and Employment announced an early start for a new 16-19 inspection regime focusing on authorities and colleges where performance was judged to be poor. This includes both our London colleges and we look forward to the chance to refute their judgment.

In Tower Hamlets College this extra inspection by the Office for Standards in Education will add to that by three others (the Further Education Funding Council programmes, the Training Standards Council and the New Deal). Clearly someone must believe that all this attention will improve our results; we have our doubts.

Somewhere along the line, the Government in its eagerness to make policy and hit targets, has forgotten people. You have to motivate them and make them feel good. You don't turn them on like taps or complain about them in public.

The Government's lack of trust in its public sector staff compares starkly with its faith in the private sector. Some private organisations and consultants, often with flimsy track records in the field, are doing marvellously with this government.

What makes this all the more bizarre is that these firms employ (rebranded) people who have parted company with that same, much-despised public education sector.

Meanwhile, civil servants from across government departments attempt to better understand our world, and generate policies to improve it, through large numbers of Policy Action Team meetings.

Perhaps some of these meetings informed Learning to Succeed and Bridging the Gap. It was excellent to see behind these papers a government with a vision for a coherent and successful post-16 education sector. What was not so encouraging was the new administration structure, dictated to us without even the pretence of consultation.

The new arrangements cut across our recently developed Lifelong Learning Partnerships - out they go just as we were learning to collaborate effectively.

In their place, or as well as them, come three, possibly four, layers of administration (where there was previously one).

The depressing thing is that, if practitioners are not committed to change or understand it, nothing will change.

The people who know how to revolutionise the classroom are our teachers, librarians, technicians, support staff and managers. Collectively they know what works.

Right now none of them has the time to think, never mind reflect and share good practice. They are too busy teaching, following up students, sorting out the new curriculum and getting ready for inspection.

If we really want better performance the Government must invest in practitioners. They need respectable salaries and time for research and development. Then, together, we would build a network of practice- and evidence-based work from which to create change.

Those at the centre of government don't have a monopoly on the best ideas.

Annette Zera is principal of Tower Hamlets College, London, and Tom Jupp is principal of City and Islington College, London

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