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Teaching teachers to teach

BILL KIRKMAN

The feeling that professionals are not trusted is not just diverting many people from the leadership that is necessary in schools and colleges. It is also discourages high calibre people from coming into teaching.


Good teaching does not come from a rigid application of externally imposed formulas.

UNLESS the Government acknowledges teachers' professionalism, the high quality staff that schools desperately need are just not going to materialise.

That is the view expressed by Colin Greenhalgh, the principal of the most successful sixth-form college in Britain, which is in Cambridge, in an interview in the Cambridge University alumni magazine CAM.

He commented: "The feeling that professionals are not trusted is not just diverting many people from the leadership that is necessary in schools and colleges. It's also discouraging high calibre people from coming into teaching."

Anyone who knows and talks to teachers will not be in the least surprised by Colin Greenhalgh's view. It is widely echoed throughout the teaching profession, which became demoralised over many years by a series of initiatives devised by the Government and imperfectly planned and resourced, and by a culture of criticism from politicians, and others, including the former chief inspector of schools, which left many teachers feeling unvalued and unloved.

Part of the problem has been that the Education Ministry has too often been seen by the responsible ministers (successive Secretaries of State) as a jumping off ground for their personal political ambitions. Few of them, in the past two decades, have been memorable except for their awfulness.

There are now some encouraging signs. The current Secretary of State, Estelle Morris, is a former teacher of experience. She and her immediate predecessor have taken steps to tackle the question of poor pay.

Now the Government has introduced legislation which will enable successful schools to opt out of the national curriculum and to experiment with the curriculum, school teaching hours and the annual calendar of the school. Estelle Morris has indicated that the legislation will "allow our best schools and our best teachers the freedom to unshackle themselves from some of the regulations that prevent them from raising standards".

Potentially this could have great importance. It recognises that competent professionals are usually the best judges of how to exercise their professional skills. Good teaching, like good practice in other professions, comes from a marriage of training, knowledge and personal qualities, not from the rigid application of externally imposed formulas.

There are, of course, other things that have to be considered. It is, clearly, important that teachers, like other professionals, are accountable, and it is important that standards are maintained.

Flexibility over the national curriculum, for example, does not, and must not, mean that children can emerge from their schooling without adequate literacy and numeracy. The flexibility to be aimed at is flexibility to enable good teachers to teach well, not bad ones to do the job badly.

The problem is to get the balance right, and that is by no means straightforward. Another profession, the medical, has just been criticised for arrogance, paternalism and complacency. Hard words, and all the harder because they came from the retiring president of the General Medical Council, Sir Donald Irvine. However justified they are, they will undoubtedly irritate many medical practitioners, and they will probably have an adverse effect on morale.

Yet, the point about all professions is that their members should behave professionally, and should be called to account when they do not. That requires rigorous self-criticism, and some robust system for ensuring that clients (patients, pupils, parents for example) are properly served. When the regulation of the profession is purely internal — professionals setting the standards and judging whether they have been achieved — the possibilities of complacency and arrogance are likely to be high. That kind of regulation is essentially what exists in the medical profession.

Teaching has never been a self-regulating profession. The accreditation of training, for example, is in the hands of government, not teachers.

The trouble is that both extremes tend to produce bad outcomes. It would be ludicrous for a body of lay "outsiders" to tell physicians how to treat their patients, or surgeons how to operate on them, but there is no inconsistency between taking that view, and accepting that lay outsiders have a proper role in monitoring the results.

It is ludicrous for people without professional training and experience (even if they happen to be senior politicians) to tell teachers precisely how to teach, but accepting that does not mean that the results of their professional work should not be monitored.

If the new legislation indicates that, at last, that distinction has been recognised and accepted, it is commendable. It may do something to restore the self-esteem of teachers — without, one hopes, encouraging "arrogance, paternalism and complacency".

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

E-mail him at wpk1000@cam.ac.uk

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