EDUCATION Opinion : A business culture that ignores children's needs

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Research at King's College, London University, has revealed a significant shift in the culture accelerated by the introduction of local management of schools, in which they take control of most of their budgets from the local education authority.

Local management of schools is one government reform that has received widespread support from headteachers - yet it appears there is a price to pay, for the system is based on competition.

The more pupils you have, the more money you get. League tables are intended to help parents to evaluate performance. The better the results, the more popular the school will become, and - so the theory goes - poor schools will be forced to improve.

What, then, is the product in this new business culture? It is the child. The King's research suggests that, far from encouraging schools to consider what they can do for the child, they are increasingly asking what the child can do for the school. Bright pupils mean good results, and while league tables fail to show what added value the teachers have provided, schools must continue to vie for a very small part of the market and neglect the needs of the many.

Senior management has been forced to reconsider its role. One deputy head commented that he no longer saw himself as managing education but an "educational institution". He saw himself less as a teacher and more as an administrator.

While this has always been the case to some extent, the research indicates that the gulf between senior management and the rest of the staff has widened in recent years, and that senior and middle management are now operating to different agendas.

While heads of department have been concerned with implementing the national curriculum, heads and deputies have been selling the school. Rather than being able to think about the teaching and learning, they have had to employ public relations firms, produce glossy brochures, develop corporate images and bring people with business, not educational, expertise on to governing bodies. Instead of producing greater choice these measures have brought about more conformity as schools seek to imitate their successful rivals.

Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the structure of schools. Unlike the medical profession, where the pinnacle of a hospital career is to be a consultant who still practices and is recognised for medical expertise, a teacher must become an administrator. This has always meant that the gifted practitioner has nowhere to go.

We need to elevate the role of heads of faculty so that they become the senior management of schools. Only then would the decision-making teams be those still involved in teaching, and only then might administrative concerns serve, not dominate, curriculum needs.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College, London University, and an advisory teacher of English.