Looking after the kids: Dr Roger White
THE words we use to describe things affect how we think about them. Advertisers know this very well, so weigh every word for meaning – or lack of it – like Kentucky Fried Chicken's "finger-licking good", which guarantees them never being sued for a misleading description.
A recent publication from City Hall described Bristol as having a "mixed economy" of schools, as if this was something to celebrate. This is the language of the business world, where profit and loss determine the viability of any decision.
Sadly, those responsible for managing education often use such words. They talk about subjects being "delivered" by teachers, whose "effectiveness" at meeting certain "targets" will be measured by "performance indicators" that satisfy respective "stakeholders".
In our struggle for "efficiency" in schools, we can lose sight of the individual pupil at the heart of the process and allow the language of business to obscure what is most important. Rather than a "mixed economy", a more appropriate description of Bristol's network of schools might be a "dog's dinner".
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We have a free school that is leeching parents away from the neighbouring comprehensive, an academy whose boss had to resign because of concerns over its finances, a former private school (saved from closure by taxpayers) now angling to acquire public-library facilities belonging to taxpayers, a secondary school publicly rubbishing results of adjacent schools, and academies owned by companies whose head offices are located nowhere near Bristol and whose shareholders may consider the balance sheet more important than anything else.
Fortunately we still have a number of secondary schools – and most of our junior schools – whose primary purpose is to serve the educational needs of all children in their surrounding communities. And we need to be supporting these schools in every way possible to sustain a shared vision.
However, this is unlikely to be achieved by colluding with the kind of language that sees children as commodities to be traded on a market stall of opportunities. Instead we need a vision that recognises the commitment and capability of our many excellent teachers, and puts the process of teaching and learning at the heart of what we value in Bristol's schools.
It would be terrific if we had the sort of bold leadership within Bristol that based the authority's response to schools on proven pedagogy, rather than slavish adherence to the whims of the current incumbents at the Department for Education. In my 14 years as parent-governor representative, I have seen six directors of education come and go. We now have a new appointment – and I hope John Readman can work with schools to create a common purpose. The language used will be very revealing.
Dr Roger White is the elected parent-governor representative on the Children's Services Scrutiny Commission.