When a new schools policy is announced, check the reaction of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Supportive, and the policy is liable to be misguided. Condemnation, and the policy is perhaps worth considering.
It's a crude, but none the less useful guide. The NUT is just doing what any good union should do of course, protecting its members' interests. And certainly no one could ever argue that the NUT fails to put its members interest first and foremost. But on school issues, the public must put children's interests first, and rarely nowadays are these aligned with those of the NUT.
So news that the NUT were unimpressed by Ed Balls' new plans for school mergers (annonuced yesterday) was a positive sign. In proposals to be laid out in a new white paper next week, provision will be made for weaker schools to be merged, or even taken over by well performing schools. Schools will be allowed to pool budgets, and local authorities will be forced to consider handing control of the weakest schools to new accredited 'federations'. As Balls told the Times, "What we are looking to see is a number of 'not-for-profit' state schools directly run by the best education providers. We want to see chains of schools run by a single overall leadership, probably with a shared brand, with some shared management and governance with a shared ethos and identity".
In principle, the idea is not bad. But there is still plenty wrong with the plans. They could see the Department for Children once again moving power from schools, parents and teachers, and consolidating it in Whitehall. On past form, this is depressingly likely. Moreover the possibility that good state schools could be marked down by Ofsted if they refuse to take part in mergers - considered by Balls to be evidence of a lack of ambition - is ridiculous, and could potentially undermine any positive outcomes which come from these plans. As to the motivation, the Secretary of State's thinly veiled threats to good schools, and his comments about efficiencies, bolster the suspicion that Balls is making such moves simply to cut costs (as he is going to have to, whatever he says) and increase his control. As with some unions, Balls' interests are rarely aligned with children's.
But, all that said, as a group that has been pushing to see good schools allowed to merge, or more importantly, take over poorly performing schools, we must give these proposals a cautious welcome. They do, in some sense, move policy in the right direction, acknowledging that schools know better how to fix problems than Whitehall. Any moves that potentially give schools more power, at the expense of local authorities, DCSF and even 'teachers' (as an industry) must be applauded (however gingerly the clapping). We should have a debate about what constitutes suitable pay for 'super-heads', and oppose totally the idea that good schools be strong armed into mergers, but we should support steps which might free state schools a little from Whitehall. The jury is still out on whether yesterday's plans will do so.
Note: to put yesterday's proposals in context a little, read Alexandra Blair's piece in the Times today (see here). Investigating the turn around of a sink school in High Wycombe, it is impressive what is possible when able teachers and determined management are given the freedom to impose their own prescription for improvement.