Successful leaders cannot transform their schools

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Twenty years of market-led education and the fantasy that good head teachers can fix society’s problems are jeopardising the future of a generation of young people, according to a top school leadership expert.

Leading academic and former headteacher, Professor Bernard Barker, has launched an attack on the policies that have turned education into a “frenzied rat-race”.

In a new report, he maintains that:

  • Successful leaders cannot transform their schools and change the system.
  • Effective and efficient schools cannot overcome disadvantage and improve life chances
  • Markets and competition cannot improve school efficiency and results
  • Central regulation and inspection do not ensure high standards
  • “Best practice” in teaching and organisation cannot be transferred from one school context to another

As the first comprehensive schoolboy to become a comprehensive school head, Professor Barker calls for a return to progressive values that are concerned with children’s personal growth as much as their future economic productivity.

He said: “My research argues that education and society need to create the conditions for one another’s growth."

The report recommends action on four policy priorities:

  • The responsibilities of national and local authorities should be rebalanced, so that decisions are brought closer to people and their communities. Strong communitarian policies should be adopted to reduce the impact of economic and social trends that have seriously damaged life and learning in many towns and cities.
  • As public confidence in the test and examination system has collapsed, a National Commission should be established to investigate the operation, validity and reliability of current arrangements; and to recommend assessment practices that value qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of children’s learning.
  • Cease to base school improvement efforts on the expectation that education can overcome the overall effects of social background and disadvantage.
  • School leaders should be made accountable to local communities for progress and improvement; and school self-evaluation should be based on agreed local plans, not a national inspection template.”

Bernard Barker is emeritus Professor of Educational Leadership and Management at the University of Leicester. His research features in his book, The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform.

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