What we really, really want

15th June 2001 at 01:00
In an open letter to the new education secretary, Tim Brighouse, urges Estelle Morris to reduce teachers' paperwork as one of four key urgent issues

Dear Estelle

David Blunkett's public regret "was not managing to change the morale of teachers". Privately, of course, he had others, for he is a good man whose reach exceeded even his huge grasp.

He achieved so much: birth-to-five provision has been transformed for the least privileged; many more children have a firmer and sufficient grasp on literacy and numeracy as they enter adolescence; and Excellence in Cities offers hope where there was once despair - not to mention the huge gain in opportunity for post-16 students as a result of educational maintenance allowances. It is, however, his regrets which you must find the courage to address if it is not all to end in tears in five years' time.

The first is Mr Blunkett's public regret. Staff morale is the key to any enterprise - particularly in schools. Good teachers are energy creators, not consumers; "how we could" rather than "why we can't" people: yet that is what they are in danger of becoming.

The bureaucratic overload underlines the point. It intrudes into teachers' daily lives: for example, detailed lesson preparation, assiduously recorded in laborious detail, is held to be a prerequisite of good lessons. It is not. Preparation, yes, but not the crushing paper mountain that nobody - least of all the teacher - refers to again except when the Office for Standards in Education calls.

Cut paperwork. Abolish the Teacher Training Agency and hand its powers to the General Teaching Council. Redouble measures for supply and retention through money for pay and sabbaticals. Why not, for example, give teachers who cross the assessment threshold a pay increase of pound;10,000? Then aim for staffing levels of 30-40 pupils per senior teacher and an overall ratio of six pupils per "learning adult", including junior teachers and classroom assistants.

The second urgent issue is secondary schooling. There is a group of secondary schools in the large city conurbations which causes deep concern. Typically their difficulties arises from a potent cocktail of league tables, overactive parental choice, many admission authorities - LEA, aided and foundation - and a collective lack of commitment to inclusion which leaves behaviourally-challenged teenagers increasingly dumped in schools at the wrong end of the pecking order.

Two measures will help, oneaffecting admissions, the other school independence. When you change the law, you will need both a clearing-house system to process all applications in the conurbations and one admission authority to ensure parents choose schools rather than vice-versa. These bodies - and they should probably be the same agency - will not be popular, so you might as well give the job to the LEA.

More contentiously, help schools on their journey from the stultifying dependence they once suffered to the rich possibilities of interdependence. Their present sojourn in the lotus fields of independence is seductive but dangerous. Education action zones have been a disappointment precisely because they have exposed the selfish aspects of independence. Excellence in Cities has been more promising. But what we need are collegiate academies of six or seven schools, a college and a university.

There would be collegiate-wide responsibilities for staff professional development, accelerated learning and programmed digital learning beyond the school day and year. Each collegiate should have the resources to look after all children - a totally inclusive system. Teachers would have collegiate employment but teach for most of this time in their home school.

Inspection is necessary, but on a model which builds on self-review, externally moderated and validated by two-day inspections. The curriculum needs tackling also. There is too much information at the expense of skills, values and attitudes. Schools need not just the freedom to choose their own curriculum, but assessment arrangements that encourage teamwork and a better balance of pupil experiences, especially in primary schools.

I am copying this letter to Number 10 since Andrew Adonis (the Prime Minister's education adviser) needs to understand the need to tie up education policy with the work of the Social Exclusion Unit.

Indeed, when Tony Blair in election week answered Jeremy Paxman's question about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, I thought he was so right to emphasise the need to focus all efforts on raising the chances of the poorest and removing obstacles from them, rather than imposing limits on the richest. But he fails to see that the education system has viruses in it that do the reverse. Tackle them, and realise that we must not behave as though gifted and talented people are rationed, but as if every child can walk a step or two with genius.

With kindest regards and good luckTim

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