Labour and the grammar schools: a history
On being beaten about the head
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
ABSTRACT In this article I describe what it was like to be a head teacher at a time when schools were being relentlessly criticised by politicians and the media, and when policies of which I disapproved were being imposed by the government.
The trouble with being beaten about the head for long periods is that, in the end, you don't even notice it's happening. I suppose teachers have always been beaten about the head - certainly we've always been blamed to a greater or lesser extent for the ills of society. It seems to me, however, that the beating has become very much more violent in the past decade or so and, as a head teacher, I see the effect of this on my staff, a group of people genuinely dedicated to doing their best for the children in their care but struggling not to feel dispirited, over-worked and under-valued.
Much of the blame for this situation lies in recent education legislation. Not that I am suggesting that it is all bad - there are grains of truth and sense in much of it. The 1986 Act's aim of getting parents to take a greater interest in their schools is sensible and laudable. The idea of a common curriculum - underlining the right of every pupil in every school to a basic entitlement - must be right. The ability of schools to make more decisions about the way they use their funding sounds fine in principle.
However, it is the practical effects of all this legislation on the school which concern me. This is, if you like, a shapshot of where we are in June 1989. Some background information will set the scene.
My school is a 9-13 middle school set in a pleasant part of Oxford. I took up my post as head teacher here (my second headship) in January this year. The school was formed five years ago by the amalgamation of two neighbouring middle schools. That process had caused a great deal of resentment among staff for a variety of reasons which are irrelevant here. There were still problems five years on, so that I inherited a school with a number of staff on temporary contracts and in which only six of the available nineteen incentive allowance points had been allocated on a permanent basis - another understandable cause of much resentment.
On top of all this, the present school year has been the school's OCEA preparation year. The Oxford Certificate of Educational Achievement is a Records of Achievement scheme which has much to commend it. It offers staff an opportunity to think about what they are teaching, how they are teaching it and what, why and how they are assessing it; and it offers pupils a chance to be involved in the whole learning process, making decisions and taking responsibility for their own work. Above all, like all good RoA schemes, it celebrates achievement. It can be a powerful force for whole school evaluation. But it takes time. Indeed, this year we have one teacher on full-time secondment and five others on one day a week secondments: the equivalent of two full-time teachers for a whole year. As you can imagine, the level of disruption within the school is formidable.
Add to all that a member of staff off sick for five months, a deputy head retiring on health grounds and an acting deputy taking over for the year, an acting head for the autumn term and a new head in January and you get some idea of the state of the school. And I don't suppose for one moment that this situation is unique or even particularly unusual.
We have spent the past six months sorting out the staffing situation. It has not been easy or particularly pleasant, but we at last know who will be on the staff in September, what areas of responsibility they will carry and what incentive allowances they will be paid. For the first time in twenty-three years I have done no teaching, other than covering occasionally for absent colleagues.
It is into this setting that documents from the DES instructing us about bits of Kenneth Baker's legislation fall with monotonous regularity. Am I alone in getting a sort of sinking feeling every time a new package arrives?
In addition to sorting out the staffing situation we have spent much of our time considering the implications for us of the 1988 Act. This process began almost as soon as I arrived: Oxfordshire was in the middle of an elaborate consultation process to establish a formula for delegated budgets - there were meetings almost weekly of various groups of heads and others to discuss this.
Local Management of Schools worried me enormously for some time. I felt it would diminish my ability to be an educator and reduce me to being a fairly well-paid bursar, making decisions about whether to have this piece of guttering repaired or that floor tile replaced. It's too early yet to say how accurate my worries are: so far, the only effect on the school is that I've spent a large amount of time at meetings discussing the county's formula, my governors and I have spent two evenings agreeing our response to the county's proposals and my deputy and I have had two days' training (which were provided by Oxfordshire and were excellent). I'm still not very clear about how it's going to work, but at least I've given up worrying about it, which I suppose is a step in the right direction!
The National Curriculum is, perhaps, the most significant part of the legislation for the teachers at the chalk-face. My staff - in common, no doubt, with staff in all schools - have spent many hours of their own time reading the various documents and considering their implications for our own curriculum. Charts, grids and schemes abound. My science teacher tells me that, for him, the saddest aspect of the new curriculum is that teachers will be under pressure to cover everything. He gave the example of a class which had recently become very interested in some work on electricity - so much so that he had extended the time spent on it and felt that they had benefited from this. Under the new curriculum, he will feel unable to do this for fear of not 'keeping up'.
There is no doubt that the curricula proposed so far are very much better than I had dared hope for (the beaten head syndrome again?) but I still object to my staff spending hours of their time trying to work out how the work we already do will fit, rather than developing new and exciting curricula.
The main effect of the National Curriculum so far has been to change teachers from being curriculum developers into curriculum deliverers. But we've hardly started yet: we are still waiting to see how the whole testing and assessment apparatus is going to work and many teachers are even more concerned about this aspect of the legislation than the curriculum itself. A recent survey indicated that a third of all teachers now want to leave the profession. I'm sad, but not surprised.
I'm worried, too, that we shall soon be in the business of comparing pupils, classes, schools and LEAs. This flies in the face of all the efforts which have been made to try to avoid such comparisons which are so often misleading and sometimes just plain odious. Schools are being forced more and more 'into unnecessary and unhealthy competition and into defensive postures which do nothing to raise or maintain the morale of the teachers in them' (NAHT 1987).
Open Enrolment encourages this competition. Until now, neighbouring schools have had 'gentlemen's agreements' about the manner in which they can try to attract pupils: I hope these agreements can survive the education market economy.
There are, of course, other issues arising from the 1988 Act which are having, or will soon have, a profound effect on schools.
The new rules on charging for educational visits involved me and my governors in a considerable amount of time last term in writing our Charging Policy. It is a concept new to teachers that the wording of a policy has to be so carefully constructed that it will avoid problems of a legal nature arising. We formed a Governors Sub-Committee to construct our policy: this meant another evening meeting and time to read the available guidance and write the policy and the new standard letter that we send out when organising a visit. So far the new rules have had little effect in practice, though we wait to see what happens to parental contributions as people become more aware of the new rules. It would be sad if the end result of a law designed to ensure fairness for all was the loss of a valuable educational opportunity.
The section on collective worship has also had its effect - again, mainly on my time. I've had to write a School Assembly Policy which governors have approved, and we now keep an Assembly Log showing who took each assembly, what its content was and whether it was 'wholly or mainly' Christian in character. I have to ensure that at least 51 per cent of our assemblies fall into this category. I find this section particularly tiresome. It involves a considerable amount of extra administration keeping the log and checking that we are staying within the law.
There is a more important point, though. The most important aspect of our school assemblies is that they are inclusive - that is, every member of the school (staff and pupils) attends them. I would not want to do anything which changed that. I want assemblies which make every member of my school feel comfortable. I think this is possible within the new rules, but it certainly isn't any easier.
It's difficult to be positive and optimistic when faced with a government which spends more on three City Technology Colleges than on introducing a National Curriculum to 30,000 schools in England and Wales. It's difficult not to compare the provision of time by the local authority for the introduction of OCEA into my school (two teacher years) with the provision by central government for the introduction of the National Curriculum (two days per teacher).
Despite all this, we are still dedicated to offering our children the best opportunities we can. Despite all Baker's insults and criticisms, overt and implied, we still take a pride in doing the job well. Despite the lack of time to cope with the absurd number of initiatives, we still keep our heads above water. We will, after all, still be here when Baker is just a half-forgotten nightmare.
Being beaten about the head doesn't make the job any easier, but it won't stop us remembering that 'at the heart of the educational process lies the child' (Plowden 1967:7).
NAHT (1987) A response to the proposed National Curriculum Haywards Heath: NAHT
Plowden (1967) Children and their Primary Schools Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) London: HMSO
This article was first published in Forum 32(1) Autumn 1989 8-10.