Wisdom of soothsayers - upon Gove's entry to the Capitol

21st May 2010 at 01:00

Over the past year, our new Education Secretary Michael Gove has engaged with many teachers, parents and others wanting to participate in the way schools operate. But what - apart from "mind your back" - would a latter-day soothsayer warn him of on his triumphal progress to the Capitol?

Rid yourself of the delusion that a local authority "controls" the schools it maintains. Here is a cure: write a list of the things you believe a local authority can require the head or governors to do that the authority does not impose because of legislation or regulations from government.

Avoid being personally responsible for the success or failure of individual institutions. Those funding agreements with academies have your seal affixed to them. Be aware that many schools have got along very well since 1944 without such agreements. Now, when an academy fails, the public and the press hold the trustees responsible. But that will not last. If the trustees are incompetent, why has the Education Secretary not sorted them out? A prudent leader will always position himself so he is praised for the success of any system he endorses, but can never be held personally responsible for the failure of any one of its constituent parts.

Do not create new legislative structures when existing ones can be adapted to achieve what you want.

Shed the Ballsian focus on achieving minimum standards. HMI Matthew Arnold put the point clearly in 1869. "School grants earned in this way - by the scholars performing a certain minimum laid down beforehand - must inevitably concentrate the teacher's attention on the means for performing this minimum, and not simply on the good instruction of his school," he wrote. "The danger to be guarded against is the mistake of treating these two - the producing of this minimum and the good instruction of the school - as if they were identical."

Beware of what economics textbooks say about competition. Those in charge of school games know that competition between football teams only "drives up" standards when they are equally matched. Likewise with schools. How can politicians be convinced of this? Perhaps a team of "let's drive up standards" politicians should take the field against Chelsea FC. After some ten goals, most of the Chelsea side would be sitting on the grass with their skills unimproved. The parliamentarians would be preoccupied with survival rather than improvement. Bruising encounters with Drogba would leave the most intellectually agile of the parliamentarians trying to get a red card.

Finally, survival may depend on strict observance of the rule that no email should be sent from your office which could not safely be forwarded to the tabloids. There is always some Brutus in the woodwork.

Sir Peter Newsam, Former chief schools adjudicator, Thornton-le-Dale, North Yorkshire.

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