You won’t improve schools by mixing the bad with the good – Ed Balls is proposing management by threat
June 24th 2009
Any successful school will know that a good reputation is hard won and easily lost. Such schools will thus be very wary of Schools Secretary Ed Balls’s warning that good state schools face being marked down by Ofsted, the inspections watchdog, if they do not take part in mergers or federations with poor schools.
According to Mr Balls, the “best education providers are to provide chains of schools run by a single overall leadership, with a shared brand, with some shared management and governance, with a shared ethos and identity”. This is why he is proposing that the cap on heads’ salaries of £120,000 be lifted for heads who add neighbouring schools to their portfolios.
A few years ago, in west London, it was suggested that the Church of England high school that I was running could establish an “annex” to help the local authority to increase its secondary school places. Places in a church school would have been easier to sell; it was a popular brand. I declined, for I had taught in a split-site school, which is what Mr Balls wants to create, and I would not impose this on my staff. It was pointed out that, with a larger “school” to run, my deputies and I would be entitled to larger salaries; but for my staff there would only have been the difficulties and frustrations of trying to work effectively in two separate communities.
Mr Balls is proposing management by threat. That’s all he can do, for, ambitious headteachers apart, few people will see the benefits of such proposals. But if he implements this madness, he will destroy what little trust remains in publicly funded education.
He is also confused about the nature of education and its provision. He uses the language of edu-babble, condemned only last week for its ability to disguise and confuse. He assumes that a human institution can be run like a distribution centre, dispatching cereals and tins of beans, inanimate materials that, conveniently, will not react adversely when mishandled.
Who are these educational providers of whom he speaks? Parents who teach their children to read and to listen and to treat their fellows as worthy of concern and consideration? Teachers in a classroom with real children doing their best when they aren’t ticking boxes or trying to digest the latest government directives? Does he have in mind volunteers, who teach all manner of useful and constructive things in organisations for young people? Other adults, employers of young people at weekends and during holidays? Or does he mean some sort of business that would be as happy to “deliver” education as easily as they deliver self-assembly furniture? Talk of delivering education suggests that the stuff has simply to be packed up in the back of a truck and driven off to a lucky school somewhere near you.
To put it bluntly, Mr Balls proposes an even larger burden of school management to be financed, motivated and rewarded. Teachers are easily rewarded and easily motivated. Just allow them to get on with teaching most kids without the need to provide tick-box support to the non-teaching managerial pyramid that needs constantly to justify its existence, and see that a few words of thanks and praise reach them from time to time.
Balls says that his plans would ensure that “no pupil is abandoned”. Does he not realise that a considerable number of them are abandoned before they get anywhere near school?
Turn it upside down, Mr Balls. Start at the bottom, in the homes into which children are born. Look to the parents for your leadership, your inspiration and sense of burden of responsibility. But you daren’t, like most politicians. You find it much easier to play silly buggers at the top of the pile, with fewer individuals who can be more easily managed with money than with parents whose children are let down so badly – by them and by the rest of us.
The trouble is that we believe that educational supply chains can be switched on from Whitehall by a directive from the Secretary of State and responsibility passed on to some NGO, like Edexel, for instance. In such a mad, mad world, who will children be able to sue if this plan fails them?