Slow down and try to motivate us

31st October 1997, 12:00am
Peter Smith


Slow down and try to motivate us

The TES asked teachers' union leaders to give their verdicts on the first six months of the Labour Government.

The last Government boasted of over a decade of Tory education reform. What was the prize? Unpopularity with teachers so strong as to be all but irreversible. A collapse of public confidence in the Conservatives' ability to deliver the very things their reforms promised: more choice, higher standards, better value for money.

In comes New Labour. Education? A passion. A crusade. The action plan? How strange it is that one party can be crushed on a record of misconceived reform and another swept into power by promising more of the same . . .

How does Labour look now? With the electorate at large, pretty good as far as education is concerned. With a breathtakingly impressive marriage of instinct and spin, the Government has managed to deal with its potentially most damaging issue - grant-maintained schools.

Creating a new category of foundation schools is a slice of political fudge cake of Viennese proportions. There is no sign that the electorate will refuse it. The plain fact is that the most contentious, unpopular Tory policy thrust has been politically castrated. To most voters it now seems no more than a fairly boring structual issue. After all, it's standards that really matter.

New Labour has moved hard and fast to secure territory over which Conservatives traditionally claimed the freehold. Pushing up standards is as much the DFEE team song under Blunkett as under Shephard. The difference is that Labour, having successfully created an impression of competence and dynamism, looks as though it means it.

Sacking bad teachers quickly, closing failing schools, moving in on shambolic local authorities, setting rigorous targets and seeing they are hit - all are measures crafted to give the impression of a Government that means business.

But if the Government is riding high with the electorate as a whole, what is its stock with teachers? Considerably lower - and Messrs Blair, Blunkett and their advisers need to be more worred about it than they appear.

The biggest political failure of any government since 1945 has been the failure to hitch the idealism and commitment of teachers to a sense of national educational mission.

Instead, the morale of teachers has been allowed to become almost chronically low. Rebuilding the corporate professional self-confidence of teachers is going to be a formidable task and I am not certain that David Blunkett and his team fully understand its magnitude.

The first thing they need to realise is that teachers up and down the country are not excitedly discussing how quickly the White Paper's proposals can be implemented. If they are thinking about it at all then it is with apprehension at yet more change and workload pressure.

So what must the Government do? First, slow down a bit. I know the challenge of raising standards is real and urgent, but you don't need to go on trying to win an election you've won already. Your most important stage one mission is to win the minds and hearts of teachers and you have barely made a start.

Second, the Government needs to develop a human resource strategy for the teaching profession. The White Paper hardly begins. Ousting the incompetent and rewarding the outstanding is a solution that falls far short of answering the fundamental issue: how to produce a highly motivated, self-challenging teacher workforce with the energy, drive and commitment to create a world-class education service.

Third, the Government needs to decide on the role of local education authorities. The White Paper reeks of unease. Many of our problems flow directly from LEAs having lost their ability to support schools and their power to intervene when that is clearly in the community interest. They have a powerful role to play in raising standards and restoring teacher morale.

So the message is mixed. After six months the Government is impressing the electorate as a whole, but a significant number of teachers are plainly underwhelmed. Spin your way out of that.

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