Leading article: Heads jeered for a reason

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The Independent Online

Headteachers who jeer the Education Secretary can never expect sympathetic headlines or public support for their antics.

Headteachers who jeer the Education Secretary can never expect sympathetic headlines or public support for their antics. As a society, we expect them to be responsible for keeping order rather than resorting to becoming unruly pupils. But the reception that Ruth Kelly got last weekend at the hands of the Secondary Heads Association is symptomatic of a deep unease about the direction of education policy. The headteachers don't normally disrupt visiting speakers and their accusation that she had adopted a patronising attitude towards them was heartfelt.

Part of the problem is their belief that when Charles Clarke and David Miliband left the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), they lost two heavyweight politicians. They lost two clever, confident and expert men who were on top of their brief and prepared to fight their corner with Downing Street. Ruth Kelly is seen as a No 10 mouthpiece - anxious to please Tony Blair in her first big Cabinet job.

She has annoyed the education world by rejecting the new diploma suggested by Sir Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who headed a government inquiry into exam reforms. Charles Clarke, her predecessor, may well have done the same but he would have presented the argument better and might have got more out of Downing Street in return. In defence of her decision, Ruth Kelly rejected the idea that there was a consensus behind Tomlinson on the grounds that parents and pupils were opposed to it. However, her evidence was based on conversations with a handful of parents in her Bolton constituency. Clarke's argument would have been based on more than that.

In addition, the heads were annoyed that - when they asked her where the money was coming from to implement a pledge made by Labour to provide smaller tuition groups in some subjects for all pupils - they were told they had already got it. "No, we haven't," they chorused. It is difficult to see how relations between Ms Kelly and the teachers' unions will improve until she can convince them that she is her own woman. What can be said for now is that the day the DfES lost two skilled ministers in the pre-Christmas reshuffle was a bleak one for the future of the education service.

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