Sue Moores, headteacher of a secondary school in the Isle of Man, compares the island’s educational system with that of England and concludes that she won’t be moving back here!

After 15 years of teaching in large, multicultural comprehensive schools in London, I obtained my first headship at a rural comprehensive on the Isle of Man. This meant not only adjusting to the obvious differences between large urban schools and a smaller rural one but also learning the ropes of a different education system with its own acronyms and laws.

The Isle of Man is a Crown dependency (like the Channel Islands but further north). This means that it is not part of the UK and has its own government, including its own Department of Education (DE) with its own minister. Working on the island offers many advantages – not least that, as it is a tax haven, I keep over 80% of my salary – but also provides some unique challenges and idiosyncrasies.

Looking ‘across the water’ at the Education Bill and debates over specialist schools, trust schools etc, the island begins to feel like a sanctuary of traditional values where children really do matter and a school is expected to serve all of those in its local community. Hearing from fellow heads about the increasing accountability stakes with Ofsted, league tables and PANDAs, adds to this impression. So what are the main areas of difference?

Community schools and admissions

The island has a population of about 80,000 with 35 primary schools, five secondary schools and one independent school. There are four main catchment areas for the secondary schools, with the two Douglas schools sharing the largest, based around the capital.

My school is the smallest secondary with 850 students from a largely rural catchment area on the west of the island. We have six main feeder schools although we do take some students from other primaries outside our area if they have siblings at the school or if we have space.

Parents moving over from England find it strange that we do not publish a prospectus advertising our school or run an evening for parents to persuade them that this is the right school for their child. Instead, we offer to show people round the school on a normal working day so they can experience the school as it is. When we know the children who will be joining us next year, we issue an information booklet for parents and invite children in for a taster day. Our efforts are concentrated on forging strong links with our feeder schools to promote continuity of learning for children, rather than on marketing and competing with other secondary schools.

This pre-Thatcherite approach means that rather than expecting market forces to provide the stimulus for school improvement, we rely on old-fashioned concepts such as wanting all of our children to succeed.

As secondary heads, we can work together to improve the education for all children on the Isle of Man, not just those in our own schools. While there is plenty of good-humoured competition between us, it tends to be on the sports field or debating rather than in fighting for the ‘best’ students and getting rid of those who might not generate the best results at examinations. The rule on admissions is simple: if they live in the catchment area, we educate them at our school.


In London, we spent hours of senior leadership time in meetings with the governing body and its committees. On the Isle of Man, I have six governors, including one parent and one teacher. The remaining four are directly elected by the electoral constituencies (known as sheadings) to serve on the Board of Education.

With such a small team, meetings, held four times a year, are relatively short and there is little need for separate committees. With the introduction of performance management in 2000, we established a pay and performance committee, which meets once a year to review my objectives and monitor the performance management systems in the school.

The role of the governing body has been evolving recently as we have become more influenced by changes in England. However, legally there is still little genuine accountability as governors are not responsible for financial management. The governors have a greater role in staff appointments than in England – until recently all six were involved at every interview, even for an NQT post – but otherwise they act as critical friends to the school.

We must be the only place in the British Isles to determine school holidays and staff training days on the basis of motorcycle races. With roads closed in June and early September for the TT and Manx Grand Prix, the school closure dates are fixed for the island and schools have no discretion.

Financial management

When I arrived in 1998, the DE had just introduced delegated financial management (DFM) for secondary schools. The budget is delegated to the headteacher, not to the governors. As with local management of schools (LMS), this means that the school can make its own decisions about how to spend the budget. However, unlike LMS, there are restrictions as to the amounts involved for any one purchase and we do not have our own cheque book.

One of the bizarre aspects of the system is that the finance department can alter our budget without informing us. They manage the payroll and have to make any payments on our instruction, no matter how small. In fact, they then forward the instruction to treasury so we have triple accounting. We cannot commit any money until it has been put into the computer system, which can also lead to delays. This is probably the area of greatest frustration for school leaders. It is a challenge to plan a budget when you do not know until March what the indicative budget will be. The concept of three-year budgets is not even on the agenda for discussion.

While heads manage the school budget, including provision of meals and building maintenance, capital expenditure is still led by the DE. This means that any extensions or major spending on the building have to be planned centrally and approved by central government. All capital schemes have to be submitted to Tynwald, the Manx parliament, at each stage – from initial provisional plans to final approval of contractors from tenders. This involves lengthy timescales so, for example, we are finally due to start building an extension originally conceived prior to my appointment.

In the intervening time, needs have completely changed but it is still known as the ‘humanities extension’ even though it will now be for performing arts, as changing the title could have jeopardised gaining Tynwald consent! There is no thought of PFI or Building Schools for the Future – cause for celebration or should we be campaigning?

Managing pay awards

Another interesting financial arrangement is the ‘supplementary vote’, which is a mechanism by which the DE can obtain from Treasury the cost of any agreed pay increases for that financial year. Those of you who have the yearly headache of managing pay awards from within your existing budgets will probably be green with envy at the idea that these will be fully funded, and it certainly makes a difference.

It does come with some complicating factors, however. One of these is that it is difficult to predict exactly how much money will be allocated and the money may not be approved until January or February. The Manx government does not allow its departments to carry over money at the end of the year, so each March we have the mad rush to make sure that any money left is committed, as accruals are approved to honour existing financial commitments. This tends to be when we arrange any refurbishment to the building or buy new ICT equipment!

The secondary budget is delegated according to a formula linked to pupil numbers with some weighting for other factors. Every year, we spend time with the director discussing the formula and its problems, most of which stem from the fact that the pot does not keep pace with growing pupil numbers. When I hear of the time spent by leadership teams in England on bidding for various funding sources, however, I think it a blessing that we have one delegated budget and that is pretty much it.

The DE does have some additional funding for its own priorities, such as the National Strategy, funding of teacher laptops and inclusion, but these are allocated centrally so there is no requirement for us to bid. In 1998, the government proudly claimed that spending on education was high compared with England. Since the increases recently under Labour, that situation has eroded.

An area in which the Isle of Man leads the field is in ICT investment. All teachers have laptops and all schools are connected with broadband and we use an intranet for communication within and between schools and the education service.

Staffing issues

The island operates the same pay and conditions as in England, so we have been through the restructuring and workforce reforms my English colleagues are only too familiar with. Just to complicate matters, however, the Manx government operates a ‘personnel cap’, which limits the number of full-time equivalent staff a school can employ.

We employ all of our own cleaning and catering staff as well as the educational and administrative teams and the cap applies to all of them. Just imagine the joys of trying to implement workforce reform when you are expected to keep to the same number of employees regardless of cost. No point in getting rid of expensive staff to employ extra cheaper ones as the cap won’t allow it anyway! As a result, we are relatively well staffed with teachers but have very few classroom assistants and additional administrative staff have only been employed by reducing the leadership team.

The Manx government is currently considering including teachers in the list of key workers who do not require a work permit. Until it does, we have the additional bureaucratic hurdle of applying for a work permit for any successful applicant who is not Manx. If there is a Manx applicant, we have to demonstrate that s/he is unable to do the job if we wish to appoint someone who is not Manx. With the current recruitment crisis, we are lucky if we have a choice at all and it is increasingly rare to have applications from people with no prior connection to the island.

Employment legislation is gradually being introduced to encourage equality of opportunity, maternity and paternity rights. From next year, we will not be able to use temporary contracts renewed year after year as a way of avoiding the personnel cap. Good for employment practice and welfare of employees, slightly problematic on a short-term basis as, unless the cap is increased, we will not be renewing most of the special needs learning support assistant appointments.

Full inclusion and no exclusions

Legislation for children with special needs is totally different and there are no statements or special schools on the island. Each secondary school has a special unit to cater for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties. These are funded and staff are appointed centrally but managed by the school. On the whole it works well and children flourish with a combination of special provision and some inclusion in mainstream, as appropriate.

The bigger issue is managing the needs of children with behavioural difficulties. We have a number of students on the autistic spectrum, some of whom cope well in mainstream education, but there is no real alternative for those who cannot cope with a large school. It is deeply frustrating to see children whose needs are not being met, who become increasingly difficult and problematic and, through no fault of their own, start to impact negatively on the educational experience of their peers. Inclusion is vital if we are to help our young people learn to cope in the adult community but it can only work with the proper expertise and resources in place. Having experienced the reality of children being expected to fit into mainstream education without the help and support they need, I am increasingly of the view that an element of specialist provision is essential to give such children the opportunities to develop and learn in a secure environment.

Managing challenging pupil behaviour is an increasingly time-consuming affair. I was surprised to find that rural schools experience pupils just as demanding as those found in inner cities – indeed, child protection cases are possibly even more common. Other government agencies operate differently, so, for example, we do not have children’s services but still liaise separately with social services and the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. There is talk of implementing the Every Child Matters agenda but limited agreement as to what it actually means.

Schools on the island do not ‘exclude’ children but can ‘suspend’ them for up to 10 days, beyond which the governors have to approve. Only the DE can uphold a permanent ‘expulsion’ – and, as it then becomes responsible for the education of that child, you can imagine how willing it is to do so!

The fall-back position is for governors to approve the head’s recommendation for suspensions of longer than 10 days and to review and extend these every month. From September, we will have to arrange 25 hours of tuition for suspended children. The temptation to use the loophole of arranging special educational provision without suspension, thereby avoiding the requirement for full-time education, will be great. We are now working collectively on this issue to look at pooling resources and improving provision for children with behaviour, emotional and social difficulties.

‘Not England’

Recently, we have discovered a number of different areas in which we now are classified as ‘not England’. I leave readers to decide whether these are advantageous or not:

  • We cannot join the National College for School Leadership.
  • We have to pay for affiliation to the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth.
  • The QCA wrote to inform us last month that, should we wish to use KS2 or KS3 test papers, we will have to pay for them and will not be able to have them marked by the English examiners. (This led to a decision by the DE to abolish the use of the tests unless schools choose to implement them themselves!)
  • We have no league tables.

We also teach the Manx National Curriculum, which is very much the same as the English version but with elements of Manx culture and history included. Students take GCSEs and AS/A2 exams.

A key difference with England is that Ofsted has no remit on the island. The DE operates as both the central government and the local advisory and school improvement service. The latter is a recent innovation following an Ofsted-style inspection of the DE. The DE employed NIAS to conduct Ofsted-style inspections of each school between 1999 and 2001.

We have recently introduced a policy of school self-review and evaluation with a SEF remarkably similar to that produced by Ofsted (but not interactive or online) and we now have a link adviser. We have no PANDA but produce all of our own data.

And finally…

The Isle of Man is a beautiful place to live: from my home I can see across the Irish Sea to Scotland. We have a work/life balance that allows me to get home most days in time for a walk on the beach on a summer’s evening. The community still values education and society and most children and their parents are supportive of the school and its aims. However, there is a growing tendency for those parents who wish to complain to go ‘straight to the top’, which does mean the minister, rather than contacting the school – but usually he listens to our side of the matter too.

Despite the irritations and frustrations here, I would not move back to England as it is now. Every week I read the TES and look at the adverts for secondary headships in England. Somehow the plethora of sportsmarks, specialist school status and boasts of being oversubscribed and highly placed in league tables fail to tempt me into applying.

Here on the island, we watch with interest all the initiatives and new strategies being launched, acclaimed and then overtaken. We can choose which, if any, to implement while we take pride in running a truly comprehensive system. Working together, the five secondary heads can help to influence policy from the very top and shape the education system that we believe best serves the young people of our island community.

And on that note, the sun’s out and it’s time for my walk on the beach.