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Saturday, 24 March, 2001, 09:51 GMT
Heads defend comprehensives
art class
Heads were upset by the "bog standard" remark
by BBC News Online's Katherine Sellgren at the SHA conference in Newport

The government's vision for secondary education in England has been dismissed as "falling far short" by head teachers.

Speaking at the the Secondary Heads Association's annual conference in Newport, Gwent, its general secretary, John Dunford, said the government's green paper did not offer a "coherent vision of a secondary school system for the 21st Century".

john dunford speaking to conference
Dunford: "The comprehensive system has been a success"
The plans, unveiled by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in February, show the government wants to see nearly half of all comprehensives becoming specialist schools.

But SHA had a clearer vision for secondary education than the government of today, Mr Dunford told delegates.

The association's "manifesto" provided a better basis for success, he argued.

Click here to listen to the full speech

It emphasises teachers of high status with well-funded professional development, improving schools with realistic targets based on valid measurements, equitable funding, an improved qualificiations structure and a supportive inspections system.

The green paper talked about "diversity and excellence", Mr Dunford said, but he warned that these two words did not necessarily go together "unless they are an abbreviation for 'diversity between schools and excellence in some of them'."

While acknowledging the success of the specialist schools, Mr Dunford warned of the dangers of creating a "hierarchy of schools in each neighbourhood".

'Bog-standard' hurt

He also spoke of the hurt caused by the remark about "bog-standard comprehensives" made by the prime minister's official spokesman, Alistair Campbell.

"It would have been bad enough if this had been the throwaway remark of an over-zealous press secretary.

"But, I regret to say, they actually believe it in Downing Street," Mr Dunford said.

He had written to Tony Blair, he told delegates, but had received "not a word of apology, not a word of regret", just a note of explanation.

"The justification of the unjustifiable makes me angry," Mr Dunford said.

"Why, when the early paragraphs of the green paper trumpet the success of the comprehensive system - in terms of improving examination results at 16 and 18, narrowing the achievement gap between boys and girls, improving the performance of many ethnic minority children - does the government have to repeat the lie that the comprehensive system has failed?" Mr Dunford asked.

Bureaucracy burden

The Department for Education did not understand bureaucracy and workload in the school environment, Mr Dunford also said.

And he mocked the department for sending out 601 press releases in 252 working days in 2000.

"It isn't about counting the number of sheets of paper that the department sends to schools.

"It's about the ludicrous number of things that keep the senior staff in their offices pushing paper when they should be around the school," he said.

"I believe that's how some of you have acquired your God-like status in the staffroom," he joked to the assembled head teachers.

"The teachers believe in you but they don't actually see you."

Teacher shortage

The current shortage of teachers was making head teachers' jobs a "nightmare", Mr Dunford went on.

For too long, governments had refused to accept the gravity of the situation.

"The teacher shortage issue has been the single biggest factor in making the job of school leadership more difficult today than it has ever been," Mr Dunford said.

When asked to give a show of hands for each head in the room who had at least one teacher off school with long-term stress, two thirds of the 500 delegates present raised a hand.

Declining number of heads

The difficulty of recruiting head teachers was also of concern.

"We have watched with increasing alarm the fall in the number of applicants for secondary headship posts," Mr Dunford told delegates.

There were just 15 applications, on average, for head teachers' posts in secondary schools last year, he said.

And the age profile of the profession meant the large number of retirements would reduce the pool of candidates even further.

"We can't do anything about the demography, but we can urge the government to do everything in its power to increase the attraction of headship.

"Failure to do this will have very serious consequences for the future of education in this country," he warned.

The BBC's Mike Baker
"This school is proud to be an ordinary comprehensive"
Secondary Heads leader, John Dunford
Schools extremely angry
See also:

23 Mar 01 | UK Education
12 Feb 01 | UK Education
13 Feb 01 | UK Education
12 Feb 01 | UK Education
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