Further Memorandum from Mr Andrew Arnott (EB 08)
I applaud the emphasis placed on education by the government, but deplore the tendency to prescribe and centralise which has the effect of diminishing trust between the profession and the Government. The emphasis on punitive measures serves to remind the profession of the damaging legacy of the Tory years. However, the channelling of funds in such a way as to benefit communities in deprived urban areas has been welcomed and is making a difference in our cities.
I list some responses to the invitation to explore successes and challenges of education, as well as some observations on the impact of Government policy in Birmingham.
I welcome the easing of prescription relating to the National Curriculum and hope that this signals a renewed attempt to work together with education professionals, building trust and making it easier for teachers to adapt the curriculum to the needs of pupils and communities.
Recruitment remains a huge issue. It seems only possible to staff schools if we appoint unqualified teachers. While I recognise that attempts to make education a more attractive career have been made, the effects of eighteen years of damage to morale, confidence and reputation is still with us. The profession needs a degree of deregulation to give Heads and Governing Bodies more flexibility to enable urban schools to attract quality staff. Indeed we ought to be taking steps to attract our most able teachers to work in our most challenging and needy communities if we are to raise the "floor levels" of attainment in the nation as a whole.
The hierarchy of secondary schools as announced recently seems perverse. To encourage successful schools to experiment in a climate of deregulation, and to treat schools facing challenging circumstances as pariahs serves simply to create extra difficulties for our most deprived communities. It is often the case that schools serving our most challenging communities are not recognised for the centres of excellence which they often are. In Birmingham, we receive leaflets from Beacon Schools which often seem to be schools serving more affluent communities and in some cases schools with selective entries. In my experience, there is outstanding teaching in our most challenging schools which could usefully be disseminated. Let us have more recognition for schools facing challenging circumstances, and those who choose to work in these very demanding communities.
The profession must work with the Government to repair the damage done in the eighties and early nineties. There are encouraging signs that teachers' professional reputation is improving, but together Government and Educators must show that we are working towards common goals and tackling the problems that beset our schools in order to promote public and professional confidence.
The introduction of "para-professionals", such as Learning Support Assistants and Learning Mentors have made a major contribution to the quality of teaching and learning in schools. They have also created opportunities for people who wish to make a contribution to education without taking on the responsibilities of a teacher. In my school our para-professionals are highly respected and valued by everyone. We have experienced much larger responses to recruitment advertisements for LSAs and mentors than for teachers, which suggests that there is a sizeable untapped resource available to schools.
Advanced Skills Teachers (AST) offer a welcome alternative route for experienced and skilled colleagues. We are just beginning to explore their potential, but early signs in my school suggest that they can make a major impact on teaching and learning. However, I am concerned that we remain aware of the need to ensure that the pay framework supports appropriate career progression for middle managers such as heads of departments so that the right people are attracted into these crucial roles in schools.
The problems that have affected examining boards in recent years illustrate the necessity of a review of the whole examination administration system. There is also a real issue of "over testing" as children progress through the Key Stages.
The Government's focus on quality of teaching and learning together with pupil progress and attainment, is applauded. In recent times a more constructive and less punitive inspection system has contributed to a raising of standards in schools. This is excellent, as are the levels of investment entering inner cities through such schemes as "Excellence in Cities". This has made a real impact upon pupils' awareness, confidence and expectations and has had similar benefits for teachers and school communities.
We know that leadership is the key to turning failing schools around. The proliferation of professional and academic courses for school leaders has served to raise standards of school leadership and is a real success. These award bearing courses recognise and accredit best practice in schools, conferring credibility and enhancing professionalism. The spread of such initiatives throughout the profession will serve to raise standards further. I would like to see experienced heads acting as consultants to heads struggling to lead schools in challenging contexts.
League tables are now recognised as at best, of limited use. Parents in communities in my experience, are quite capable of making sophisticated judgments about local schools.
Behaviour. There needs to be greater recognition of the difficulties arising from poor behaviour in schools. I welcome the recent change of heart at Government level, but I think it is quite wrong that schools should be penalised for permanent exclusions. Like most Heads, I recognise the role that effective teaching, positive ethos and constructive culture plays in promoting good behaviour, however, schools do need government support when dealing with unacceptable behaviour from anyone. My own recent experience with one parent included physical assault and death threats to members of staff, as part of a campaign to traumatise my school.
As the 14 to 19 curriculum becomes more unified, what is the role for 11 to 16 schools? What role will the GCSE play in the future? The reality is that there is still much work to be done to improve knowledge skills and understanding among pupils who live in our most deprived communities. 11 to 16 schools achieve huge successes with individual children every day, but because of the emphasis on 5+ A* to C grades and the reluctance of the establishment to accept vocational qualifications as having parity with GCSE, these achievements are often ignored. This results in pupils, teachers, schools and communities becoming demoralised.
The future. The future is truly exciting. Advances in our understanding of how we learn, communications, technology and leadership all combine to create opportunities for transformational change in our schools. In order to maximise the benefits for everyone, the country needs teachers to be involved in the think tanks and research groups working at the frontiers of knowledge. Schools and communities should cooperate and share expertise and understanding. Unfortunately, the competitive ethos encouraged by league tables, specialisms, and punitive measures such as "naming and shaming" actually work to diminish the potential benefits for our children.