Without flexibility, what price independence?

13th January 2006 at 00:00
The phoney war is over. The deadline for schools to reveal how they plan to meet the new requirements on training and learning responsibilities (TLRs) passed on December 31 and now the real battle begins. There was a strange lull in the run-up to D-Day. Perhaps many schools left the statutory consultation period on their new draft staffing structures as late as possible. And many staff will have been keeping a low profile as they hoped to preserve or enhance their salaries. The unions were surprisingly quiet, too, as they manoeuvred into the best position from which to obtain a good deal for their members. I suspect all hell will break loose this new year once final decisions have been published.

The theory, of course, is that this is just a tidying-up exercise to complete the workforce reform agenda. What's more, all schools are supposed to make a profit as the clutter of administrative tasks is banished from the job descriptions of teachers, and support staff are employed to do the work instead. Seductive as this may seem to schools intent on their teachers spending every moment on preparation, performing and marking, or to bureaucratic mandarins who see such issues in black-and-white terms, there are drawbacks.

For a start, workforce reform for most schools is nothing more than a formalisation of what they've been doing for years; staffing structures have already been rationalised to the point where there's little left to change. Second, those who thought up the new structures - and let's give them credit because they've certainly been cunning - have clearly focused on the destruction of the lowest management point. Presumably they imagine great clusters of indolent staff at this level photocopying and putting up displays, rather than spending every waking moment on teaching and learning. By substantially increasing the cash value of the lowest point in the new structure, they have taken away much of the flexibility the present arrangements offer. In particular, schools will not be able to afford the first management responsibilities that provide an incentive for relatively new staff.

The staffing structure is the foundation of any school. The freedom to employ staff in the way you wish is the most important benefit of independence. One of the worst features of the new structure, therefore, is what is not permitted. It is not helpful, for example, that staff are prohibited from holding more than one responsibility, or that there are no arrangements for coping with teacher shortages.

Once again schools are the victims of thinking that is not joined up, and we're back to the worst features of initiative overload and a lack of trust in school leaders to run their own affairs efficiently. What has been created is a structure precariously suspended in time, with no indication of how it is meant to grow and develop. How we are meant to manage the process of staff moving between schools when some schools have implemented the new structure and others haven't is anybody's guess. And it's a dubious notion that support staff are cheaper than teachers. Support staff are employed by the hour, whereas teachers generally put enormous time and effort into discharging their management responsibility for what, in reality, is a pitifully small bonus.

All school staff have lived and breathed TLR re-structuring to the exclusion of more or less anything else in these past few weeks. Morale has taken another pounding. The only salvation has lain with school leaders determined not to be bullied by it. They will have made the involvement and support of staff their priority, and been confident about their existing staffing structures and the level of financial priority they have accorded them. But for most the result will have to be a fudge, where they bend the rules and maintain the control which the structure threatens to remove.

Once the detail is known of what individual schools have finally decided, it will be clear that the embattled new structures are steeped in bitterness or subterfuge.

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow

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