We don't want your freedom

The era of control freakery is over, say ministers. Schools will get more power over the curriculum, what they spend money on and teachers' pay. Welcome words, you might think. So why have the proposals met with such violent hostility? Jon Slater reports.

Even when it thinks it is being nice to teachers this Government seems to antagonise them.

It takes some talent, after all, to give 200,000 teachers a pound;2,000 pay rise and still get taken to court over the pay deal by the unions. And, judging by their handling of their latest policy initiative, ministers have learnt few industrial relations lessons from the performance-related pay saga.

Apart from workload, over-regulation has been the issue causing most resentment in schools since 1997. Head complain that "control freaks" in Whitehall try to manage every detail of what happens in schools through an endless stream of initiatives and regulations. So proposals to give schools more freedom from red tape should have been welcomed. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way.

The Education Bill now before Parliament provides schools with two opportunities to free themselves from regulation.

The "power to innovate" allows any school to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to ignore any piece of legislation. The second big idea is "earned autonomy": this will give good schools more freedom over what they teach and over teachers' pay and conditions without having to seek the Education Secretary's approval.

The accusations of control freakery have clearly touched a nerve. Before the last election Michael Barber, then head of the standards and effectiveness unit and now an adviser to Tony Blair, conceded that the Government needed to trust teachers more and give them the freedom to deliver results.

Ministers' strategy now is to let schools lead reform. They talk about schools being "hot-beds of innovation". We may have been pushy in the past, ministers seem to be saying, but now we're listening. If schools think foreign languages are a waste of time, or that cutting infant class-sizes uses money that could be better spent elsewhere, they now have the chance to convince those in power.

The problem is that those working in schools remain decidedly cynical about ministers' intentions. Classroom unions are particularly hostile.

John Bangs, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Teachers describes the Government's proposals as "a bureaucratic irrelevance". "The policy does not address the basic professional freedoms needed by teachers," he says.

As far as schools are concerned, the much-vaunted power simply forces them to ask the Secretary of State for permission to do things they should be trusted with in the first place.

And, many in staffrooms suspect that Estelle Morris will veto innovations that teachers themselves would support. The Government did little to silence the cynics when it released its draft guidance for schools. The one thing that schools will never have power to change is the accountability framework - inspections, testing and league tables. Even the Government admits it is not expecting large numbers of applications to innovate, although it insists schools support the idea If anything, "earned autonomy" is proving even less popular than the power to innovate. Just six out of 54 heads of "beacon" schools - recognised as particularly successful by the Government - contacted by The TES said they were interested in opting out of national pay and conditions.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, believes that, while schools would welcome freedom from curriculum restraints, few of his members want to tamper with teachers' pay and conditions.

Some heads are more positive. Peter Barnard, head of Sharnbrook upper school, Bedford, says the school is looking to opt out of regulations, simply because it wanted flexibility to extend the school day to 5pm. He plans to offer more sports and culture activities. This might mean paying teachers extra to work late. He says: "We cannot do all the things we want to in a normal school day."

Meanwhile, classroom unions fear that some heads could use power over local pay and conditions to undermine any national deal on workload. What is the point of, say, making rules on non-contact time, if schools are free to ignore them?

There are further problems. As the name suggests, earned autonomy will be restricted to school deemed to deserve it.

According to draft regulations, those who want more control over the curriculum, pay and conditions will have to show that results over the past four years put them in the top quarter of those with similar intakes. They will also be expected to have high marks from inspectors.

To make matters worse, ministers initially suggested that only one in ten schools would qualify. This led to an outcry from heads. Did ministers really think that only one in ten schools could be trusted?

"It is difficult to see how the Government made such a mess of introducing something so potentially welcome to headteachers," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

With hindsight, allowing an elite group of schools freedom while expecting the rest to go cap in hand to the Secretary of State was never going to be popular. But criticism is not confined to the unions.

Influential figures argue that it is unsuccessful schools that most need freedom to pay differently or rethink the curriculum. Lord Dearing - whose role in shaping the national curriculum and student finance led to him being dubbed education's "Mr Fixit" - told the House of Lords: "There is no need to remove the national curriculum requirements from successful schools because they are succeeding ... Why change things? We have a success. The place where greater freedom is most needed is in those schools which are not succeeding. I tend to believe that the proposal is perverse."

When Lord Dearing speaks, governments listen. Minister Baroness Ashton has promised to look again at the criteria for earned autonomy and to consider extending it to more schools. But according to Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter university, ministers cannot win. "They are going to have aggravation whatever they do. If they give autonomy to lots of schools it will be divisive. Schools who don't get it will see it as an insult," he says.

The easiest way out would be to give autonomy to all schools except where there are exceptional concerns over standards.

But this could create even greater problems. "If 90 per cent of schools get it and they all opt out of pay and conditions then you have destroyed the teachers' pay scale," Professor Wragg warns.

"The whole thing is fraught with problems. It is scandalous the lack of thought they put into these things. It is worse than performance-related pay."

Despite Westminster rumours that the Government is planning major changes to the Bill, ministers remain determined to press ahead with the plans.

A source close to Ms Morris said the Government was "confident that the force of our arguments will prevail". "The vast majority of heads will welcome the extra freedom," he added.

But ultimately the success of the proposals will rely on schools'

willingness to apply for and make use of new freedoms. The Government's real challenge is only just beginning.

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