White-knuckle ride on the workload racetrack

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh on schools' death-defying dash to meet targets

Someone who knows about these things once told me that there are two kinds of racing driver, distinguished by how they behave when they see trouble developing - cars closing up on each other on the approach to a bend, oil on the track, a sudden shower of rain, a marshal waving a flag.

"There's the one who eases off and quickly runs through the options, ending up with a viable plan for getting through, and there's the one who keeps the throttle wide open and relies on luck and quick reactions."

On the whole, he said, the latter type has spectacular wins and equally spectacular crashes, and the former has a long and lucrative career. For me, the two types are epitomised respectively by Sir Stirling Moss, still going strong at 75, and his contemporary Mike Hawthorn, killed on the Guildford bypass, going too fast in his Jag, before he was 30.

I thought of this during a recent governors' meeting when we were discussing ways of giving teachers their new and statutory right to what's simply become known as PPA (planning, preparation and assessment time).

I don't know what's happening in the secondary sector about PPA, but in primary schools we've got the lot - Jcars bunched up, rain on the track and the black flag going like the clappers.

I won't go through all the issues in detail, because everybody knows what they are - the involvement of teaching assistants in a way that tests the boundaries of what's professionally (and practically) acceptable, the clash between tight budgets and a policy that inevitably costs money, the scrabbling around for solutions that don't threaten standards (at a time when we're inundated with "improvement" initiatives), the heart-searching by good heads and staff members torn between loyalty, principle and the maintenance of friendly working relationships.

And all the time, I am sure, the Government is playing the Mike Hawthorn card. That's to say, they've got their collective foot to the floor, their eyes on the chequered flag ahead, and their heads filled with the cheery expectation that everyone will sort themselves out somehow.

They may well be proved right - at least on their own terms. It's not difficult to find case studies of primary schools where the PPA conundrum has been "solved". What we don't see in such cases is the amount of improvisation, fist-waving, wheel-spinning and diving through narrowing gaps that's gone on in the background.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Government's actions are entirely deliberate. Ministers surely know that the sums simply don't add up and that in school after school throughout the country, there will be compromises which will inevitably result in the worst of both worlds - paying lip service to PPA on the one hand while threatening the improvement agenda on the other.

However, they also know that, as always, teachers and governors will burn the midnight oil and make it all work.

But guess who'll be spraying the champagne when the race is over?

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