opinion: David Blunkett on national standards for headteachers

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The Independent Online
Labour's crusade for higher school standards is setting the terms of the national debate on improving the quality of teaching and raising expectations for all our young people.

In her leaked memo last month, Gillian Shephard stressed the importance of standards over structures, yet the Prime Minister last Friday showed that he has given up trying to raise standards for all (echoing Michael Heseltine's views on the inadequacies of inner-city comprehensives after 16 years of Conservative government). His expansion of assisted places has been directly countered by Labour's pledge to use the money instead to reduce class sizes for five- to seven-year-olds and to improve the quality of teaching. Nowhere is that improvement more important than for headteachers.

All the effective schools research has stressed that good management in schools is key to improving standards. The difference between a good and a poor head can be the difference between success and failure.

Governors, in appointing new heads, rely too much on the "devil you know" principle, appointing too often for length of service, rather than proven leadership abilities. That is why Tony Blair and myself proposed earlier this year that a new national qualification should be introduced for all headteachers. I am delighted that Gillian Shepherd has adopted our plan.

The training of headteachers is patchy. It is available to new heads and some deputies, but there is no consistency in the expectations of knowledge or experience that a headteacher should have gained before taking up a post. Many heads are appointed before they go on a training programme.

In improving that training, existing heads should have the chance to update their skills and improve their management techniques through existing schemes such as Headlamp. Such qualities are much more important with local management of schools.

Labour would introduce a modular approach towards managerial competency to ensure greater consistency in the knowledge, skills and experiences that those seeking to become heads acquired before taking up the post. Leadership and other vital skills would be taught after teacher training to those with such aptitude.

Labour would then establish a national register of qualified heads to ensure greater consistency in standards. When a potential headteacher qualified, his or her name would be added to the register, which would be available to governors. After a reasonable period to enable the scheme to develop, governors would expect all new heads to have successfully completed the new course that would give them a headteacher qualification.

This combination of improved training and a new standard for headteachers would enhance their professional development and the quality of leadership in our schools. It could also help to meet the potential shortage of primary headteachers.

Headteacher appraisal is a good idea which has been patchily introduced. It has the potential to allow weaknesses in management to be identified and tackled. As the quality of appraisal is inconsistent, it is crucial that clearer quality guidelines are set for Local Education Authorities to follow (good quality must be assisted by the setting and achievement of clear targets for those in leadership positions). Later this year, we will spell out our plans in greater detail.

Labour, however, is also keen that headteachers should learn from the most modern management and leadership techniques in industry. We wish to encourage greater links, with secondment for some where appropriate, just as others will wish to participate in higher education management courses, including those at National Vocational Qualification level 5.

Labour believes that the modernising of the professional standards of headteachers must be at the core of its standards crusade. It is only through such a revolution in educational standards that we can play our full part as a nation in the global economy of the new century.

The writer is Labour education spokesman.