How the nation is failing its students II

Continuing his exploration of the educational landscape, Tim Hind looks at the drive for efficiency and at the way in which governance is treated.

NO ARTICLE of this nature would be complete without a mention of Chris Woodhead's band of helpers. Most teachers are good teachers. However, no-one denies that there is a handful of teachers who operate below optimum. Has the OFSTED process helped?

Standards and Productivity

I feel that the operation of the inspection process has been somewhat agricultural. You spray the whole field to get rid of blight in the top corner. Frankly, I believe that OFSTED inspections have been destructive for some of our most unassuming professionals. Many have opted for early retirement rather than have the trauma of a second inspection.

Part of the reason for this was the inordinate amount of additional paperwork that the original inspection process foisted on unsuspecting teachers. Part of it was the trumpeted sound of an inspection team that was looking for bad practice. Was this the fault of the media? Certainly all the headlines suggested that OFSTED was looking to fail 15,000 teachers.

So, were the media bounced into quoting the real purpose behind OFSTED or did they overreact? History tells us that there are few occasions when the media can be trusted implicitly. All that OFSTED were quoted as saying put fear of failure into the hearts of teachers.

Part of it is due to the unsupportive way that teachers are marked during the inspections. To be marked as excellent they have to be excellent in every lesson. However, if they were good in all of their lessons they were marked as satisfactory at best.

In the secondary sector and in large primaries where there were plenty of teachers doing the same thing, the marking reflected, in the main, the way that a particular teacher was. In many cases a teacher would only have been seen once and certainly there was a maximum percentage of times when a teacher would have been seen altogether.

In the small school, these possibilities evaporate. A teacher who is to be seen only once can pull out all the stops and be seen at best advantage. In the small primary school there is the possibility that a teacher may be seen in 14 or more lessons during a 4 day period. We all have our good and bad days when stress levels are normal, but when those levels are already heightened by the presence of an inspector, how many days could anyone operate at peak performance in every subject. The inevitability of the situation means that the chance that a small school primary teacher will be classified as excellent throughout is minimal compared to, say, a specialist teacher who is seen once only.

Finally, we come to the vexed question of the value of league tables. When the first tables were announced as an opportunity for parental choice, it must have been some comfort to parents in Tower Hamlets to know that they could choose to send their children to the Scilly Isles to get an apparently better education.

Clearly there was something wrong with the calibration of the measure. It was readily recognised by most intelligent people, and the government some while later, that if you test the output from a process - such as education - without understanding fully the input, you can get widely distorted values.

Entry level testing to the process is only just beginning. The damage has already been done to some reputations. How many schools have entered their students into a General Studies "A" Level just to bring the total points score up? Tables are still being produced showing totals rather than average scores per subject / exam taken.

And yet, the public will have gained the impression that a child will do better at some schools than at others. Once gained, that impression is difficult to shift. In fact, if it is an adverse impression, it will take more time to be reversed than if it were a good impression. Such is human nature!

Management and Governance

I briefly touched on the issue of Local Management and Grant Maintained earlier. There is something very encouraging about the way in which the management technique of empowerment is infiltrating all kinds of institution. Instead of relying on excessive control from the centre, people are trained and empowered to operate within guidelines. Successive Governments have failed to make it clear whether they wish to have centrally or locally controlled schools.

The introduction of Local Management with its partial devolvement of budgets was a useful beginning to the process of empowering schools to manage their own affairs. Cynics thought that the initiative was an attempt to remove the influence of County Councils. Certainly the increased devolvement and the exercising of various choices by individual schools has meant that some County Education Departments have had difficulty in planning the level of support that can be supplied.

Most schools were still involved with County in some way. It was the introduction of Grant Maintained status that sent shock waves through the County Halls up and down the country. Tempted by riches, some schools made good use of the early offers and made a successful transition. Later transfers found the financial rewards somewhat less attractive. Finance for GM schools was being controlled by a central funding system. Local accountability was non-existent.

In County schools, Local Management was beginning to flourish as thousands of gifted amateurs started to look after their schools. So who were these local heroes?

There are two distinct sets. First, there is a tremendous band of highly professional schoolteachers who suddenly found themselves in charge of multi-million pound budgets. Most of this gallant group had never been trained to manage budgets or building repair programmes. Some of these have successfully made the change from senior teaching to facility management. In other cases the move has not been a success. Certainly it has made a difference to the type of person being appointed to the higher ranks in the last few years.

The second bunch of local heroes is the Governing body. The workload attaching to the role of governor has mushroomed. The technical abilities across the board need to be much broader as the governors take on the duties previously managed by county experts. There is training available but essentially we as a nation have put the governance of our schools, and hence the education of our future, into the hands of part-time amateurs. No major corporation would ever contemplate such apparently reckless behaviour.

It is down to the dedication and diligence of these folk that the system hasn't collapsed. Are we as parents, teachers, governors or leaders of the community happy to see this situation continuing for much longer? If the health of the nation needs professional governance, surely the educational health of the nation requires similar consideration.

Tim Hind is a member of General Synod. He served on the Diocesan Board of Education in Bath & Wells and as Vice Chairman of the of Governors of the Kings of Wessex Church of England VC Community School in Cheddar. He is married to a primary school teacher.

 

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