John Dunford: Will no one rid us of this incessant reform?

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The Independent Online

The Government is fiddling with the structure of secondary schools in a way that produces maximum rhetoric and minimum effect on most schools. This week's reforms to school structures are likely to be ignored by most heads. Few will read the White Paper in full, having read the morning headlines about yet more reform. Schools are far too busy raising standards to be distracted.

The timing of the White Paper is as bad as it could be. Heads and governing bodies are wrestling with the most overcrowded policy agenda they have ever experienced. They are carrying out a full review of the staffing structure and introducing new pay scales to a demanding deadline.

The final phase of the workforce reform agreement is now in place. School self-evaluation systems have to be related to the new inspection system, under which one-third of schools will be visited this year. New data evaluation methods need to be understood and used. Enterprise education has to be introduced as a compulsory part of the curriculum for 14- to 16-year-olds. Vocational opportunities have to be increased. Learning has to be made more personalised. English and maths have to be reviewed for inclusion in the performance tables.

Some schools are involved in Building Schools for the Future programmes, others in private finance initiative schemes. Food must be improved. Parents must be more involved. The list is endless.

The White Paper is hailed as the biggest reform of secondary schools in a generation, and as Tony Blair's final attempt at changing the structure of secondary schools. The Prime Minister talks of schools needing more freedom; heads will be at one with him on this.

But the plans do not bring the freedoms heads want. We do not want freedom to work in isolation from other schools; we want to find better ways of working with them. The freedom for which heads are desperate is the freedom from incessant reform that governments have been imposing on secondary schools since the mid-1980s, year after year, month after month, and, at present, week after week. We want freedom from bureaucracy, and freedom to educate pupils in the way we believe to be right. That means a national curriculum framework with much greater freedom within it. It means a system of administering schools that does not create masses of paperwork. It means intelligent accountability instead of the multiple accountabilities under which head teachers labour.

The Government has clearly learnt no lessons from Estelle Morris's 2002 Education Act, which introduced the "power to innovate". Apart from the nonsense of schools having to ask the Government if they may break the law, only a handful of schools have used this power in three years. There is plenty of innovation taking place without any recourse to the law, but governments do not seem to understand the nature of innovation.

Ministers should be very careful about reform of admissions. There is a delicate balance between the needs of the individual school and the good of the system as a whole. Too much freedom for individual schools threatens to polarise the system, making the job much more difficult for schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. International studies consistently note the large gap between the achievement of the highest and lowest in our school system. This gap is likely to grow if the White Paper reforms produce an admissions free-for-all.

The Government's paper on "education improvement partnerships" this year offered a template for collaboration between schools on a range of issues. The incentives were insufficiently strong, but the need for schools to work together to raise standards was strongly argued. Groups of schools were expected to work together on joint professional development, teacher training, work-related learning opportunities, special educational needs and courses for gifted students. The success of the Government's 14-to-19 agenda depends on schools and colleges forming partnerships. None of this features in the hype around the White Paper's proposals for greater freedom.

"Choice advisers" will be powerless to get places for children in oversubscribed schools, so it is difficult to see the point of them. Their salaries - and the pay of the schools' commissioner and his staff - would be better directed into the budgets of schools. There have been more than 30 White and Green papers and 20 education Acts on schools in the last 20 years. Ministers should concentrate on helping schools to embed the reforms already announced.

The writer is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association

education@independent.co.uk

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