December 2011

The know zone

  • Take note
    Governance, finance, buildings, liabilities, personnel… increased autonomy lays bare a raft of rights and responsibilities that academies can’t ignore, says Richard Bird. More
  • Coining new terms
    Sam Ellis introduces a series of articles designed to help leaders adapt to a world in which curriculum planning is determined by what you can afford, not what you need. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Horace, Napoleon Hill, Maya Angelou, Frank A Clark. More
  • Permanent state of bliss?
    Ross Morrison McGill was made voluntarily redundant from his role as assistant head of an academy in London in August. He hopes to run his own school one day and is currently blogging and fundraising for Bliss, a charity that helps families with prematurely-born children, after his son Freddie was born two months early. More
  • Green is good
    Through its Green Schools Revolution (GSR) community education programme, The Co-operative is encouraging students to work towards a more sustainable future. A range of resources, activities and trips have been devised to engage everyone from young, first-time environmentalists to committed ‘greenagers’. More
  • Adding value
    Data is critical to informing decisions on whole school improvement but many schools and academies are failing to make good use of the powerful tools available in their management information systems (MIS). More
  • LA story: The final cut?
    Do local authorities still have a role to play in education? If so, in what areas? Should they be involved in monitoring and raising standards, take on a more limited role, or have no involvement at all with education? Leaders share their views… More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Terminal exams set to stay in England & Pensions come home to roost More
  • Taking care of business
    While pensions and industrial action were at the forefront of everyone’s mind during the last Council meeting on 13-14 October, there was plenty of other business to attend to. Here is a snapshot of the committee discussions More
  • Trading places
    If the school system becomes polarised between confident high-achieving institutions and ones struggling to overcome major challenges, collaboration will become not just important but essential, says Brian Lightman. Otherwise, the dream of a world-class education system has no hope of becoming a reality. More
  • Sense & sensibility?
    Eric Hester reports a startling DfE development: some leadership teams are being encouraged to deploy discernment, logic and good old-fashioned gumption. More
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Eric Hester reports a startling DfE development: some leadership teams are being encouraged to deploy discernment, logic and good old-fashioned gumption.

Sense & sensibility

One does not expect a letter from the Department for Education to “Independent school associations and inspectorates (Cc independent schools)” to be gripping, let alone revolutionary.

So it was with a yawn that I started to read the letter of 30 September written by the Deputy Director, Independent Education and Governance Division, Department for Education. But then I almost fell off my chair and I shouted for my wife who thought I was having a heart attack. There was nothing on the front page to alert one to the dynamite to come: it was the usual departmental prose that makes a shopping list look like Proust by comparison.

But then, on the second page, were phrases I have never seen in a government document in my history of state education. Readers unaware of this letter might want to take a deep breath at this point or ensure that they have taken their medication.

Here come the unprecedented words: “Procedures need to be applied with common sense and judgement (whereas before schools had to follow the required procedures closely).”

Common sense! Forsooth, heads are to be allowed – nay, required – to use ‘common sense’ and their own judgement! What next? Politicians are to be restricted to the truth? Film stars are to use modesty and humility? Premiership footballers should put sportsmanship before winning? The world is being turned upside down.

I must immediately say that it is only the heads and deputies of independent schools who are to use their common sense and judgement. I know of nothing authorising this radical departure for the heads and deputies of maintained schools.

Nor are independent heads and deputies free to use common sense and judgment in all that they do. The DfE refers only to such matters as “dealing with allegations of abuse”, “securing good behaviour in school” and “anti-bullying policies and requirements relating to welfare, health and safety”.

For senior leaders under the age of 50, I should explain what common sense is. It is not, as the name might imply, that kind of sense which is most common: just the opposite.

The second of the definitions in my Shorter Oxford Dictionary (Volume 2) puts it well: “Ordinary, normal or average understanding (without this a man is foolish or insane)”.

The French have the good sense to call it ‘le bon sens’. An example of a common sense statement would be: “The curriculum is best decided by those teachers who know children in the school intimately and who have experience of teaching many children, rather than by politicians in London,” but I must add that maintained schools have not been given permission to use common sense on any decisions about the curriculum as of yet.

So older readers may smile and think that they can start to apply common sense again and that once they have oiled up the rusty works, it could be the best thing that has happened to education over the last 70 years.

But what about younger colleagues? If common sense does move into the maintained sector (at least into academies), how are they to learn to apply it to their schools?

Do not worry. I am sure that certain local authorities and other training providers will start advertising the courses that leaders will need. I can imagine the names of these courses:

  • Preparing for Ofsted inspections on common sense
  • Common sense – strategic software tool training
  • Respect and survive – common sense and the unions
  • Common sense for senior managers
  • Common sense and community cohesion

Some governing bodies may want to set up common sense sub-committees or at least have a designated governor for common sense and there will be away-days on common sense. Application of common sense will appear on the performance management review for the head. There will, no doubt, be model policies on common sense appearing in The Head’s Legal Guide.

Where will it all end? I suggested to my wife that, following this statement, politicians might start applying common sense to the running of the country. But she, who ought to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Common Sense, smiled and said it’s not going to happen.

As she so rightly said: “Is it likely? Use your common sense.”

Eric Hester was a head for 24 years until his retirement and is now a reporting inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

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Sense & sensibility