Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

One step beyond...

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Government madness has finally caught up with the independent sector, says Bernard Trafford as he empathises with his state sector colleagues' ongoing fight against 'initiativitis'.

It was former US President Bill Clinton who famously empathised with the unemployed, saying, "I feel your pain." In expressing empathy with colleagues in the maintained sector, I can't do better than start by quoting Bill: I do feel your pain.

Let me explain. I represented independent schools on ASCL's Council for 11 years. I always remembered John Dunford's admonition (as SHA president) that we worked for all the members, not just one constituency.

Throughout that time, school leaders suffered unrelenting government pressure. The dying Major administration starved schools of funds and turned Ofsted into its very own Rottweiler, to bully schools into raising standards.

Tony Blair's landslide election of 1997 brought threats to independents, but none could fail to be swayed by his passionate commitment to education, education, education. Heady days; but how swiftly hope and anticipation turned to interference, micromanagement, ill-thought-out initiatives, strings attached to every element of funding - not to mention target-setting and inspection regimes way beyond Tory dreams.

At Council meetings I marvelled at how my colleagues battled on in a Looking-Glass world of contradictions and frustrations. I frequently returned to my independent school hugely relieved that I could stand aside from most of those government-inspired lunacies.

But now, at the tail end of a floundering government, madness has finally caught up with the independent sector. An obsession with regulation and abhorrence of anyone acting independently has given rise to one piece of legislation after another, enforced by an Ofsted-controlled inspection system more tightly controlled than in the past. Independent schools now have to meet around a hundred regulatory standards.

To the overwhelming majority of ASCL members who work in the maintained sector, please don't think I'm asking for your sympathy. As the song goes, "Don't cry for me, poor school leader." You've been living with all this forever. But I can now say I understand what you're going through. Like Bill, I feel your pain.

House of fun

Moreover Sanctuary Buildings constantly changes the same old regulations - just enough to be really awkward so that we have to keep checking the newest guidance and tweaking our policies.

My statutory complaints policy bears a striking resemblance to that of the school I left 18 months ago. In 2007 that policy sailed through inspection. Now it would fail three regulatory standards: it didn't state the precise timescale for each stage. Nor did it say where the written outcome would be filed.

I've some colourful ideas for where to stick it, but I've never had to go to a formal complaints process anyway. Maybe I've been lucky, or maybe reasonable people can find better ways of sorting out a disagreement.

My school secretary produced, with an air of triumph, the DCSF's instructions for the format of the admissions register dated June 2008, all ticked off because she'd met every requirement - but they differed from the 2007 regulations quoted in the 2009 handbook! Up the short ladder, down the long snake. You couldn't make it up. Well, maybe we did once upon a time, but you wouldn't dare now.

None of this affects the quality of education for my boys and girls. Nor their safety. As I write this, the Independent Safeguarding Authority's bewildering new rules are on hold while Sir Roger Singleton reviews them. In my view registering a quarter of the adult population is logistically so mind-boggling that I'd put a tenner on the whole system collapsing in the first three months.

Teachers have always suspected it, but the lunatics are now clearly running the asylum. Having had a real taste of the world my maintained sector colleagues have inhabited for so long, I am fuller than ever of admiration for the way you keep the show on the road despite the meddling of ministers, mandarins and LA minions.

Does it have to be like this? Panic is spreading in the major parties as the election looms. Yesterday's proposed policy is denied today as an irresponsible rumour; today's wacky idea is tomorrow's new manifesto.

None of the parties and few politicians have come out of the credit crunch and expenses scandal smelling of roses. They have a mountain to climb to regain public trust and respect. Isn't now the time we really can demand honesty from politicians? Force them to keep their word instead of breaking promises? Hold them to account? Maybe. It's certainly worth a try.

And ASCL is the organisation to do it for education. It has clout, expertise and reputation. It needs to be in there banging the table. And, if there's anything I can add and you ask me along, I'll be there too.

Remember. I feel your pain.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and vice-chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC). The opinions expressed are personal.

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