Under pressure and lacking support

31st October 1997, 12:00am
Doug McAvoy


Under pressure and lacking support


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

A serious credibility gap exists between the Government and teachers. This is not a view offered lightly. The evidence is there. The NUT's recent survey of its members indicated teachers' continuing anger at imposed change, needless "paper-chasing" and excessive workloads.

Yet the Government can claim a number of achievements. It has acted to heal a divided education service. A start has been made on reducing primary class size. Nursery vouchers have been abolished. An additional Pounds 1 billion for schools, and Pounds 1.3bn for repairs, has been secured. Why then is the message not getting through?

In critical aspects of Government policy there are misjudgments about what is achievable and what is not. There is a mismatch between determination at the centre and the reality in schools. This is accompanied sometimes by a hectoring tone and intolerant language. Policies are also capable of unforgivable generalisations about teaching and learning; generalisations which are often unrecognisable to teachers.

Where do the problems lie? Target setting is one example. A genuine enthusiasm for school self-evaluation among teachers has been misappropriated by Government. Only days after the General Election, the incoming Government announced national targets for 11-year-olds. No audit was ever conducted of the collective ability of schools to achieve those targets.

The targets might have rested as optimistic aspirations had not the Government committed all LEAs in England to achieving individual percentages of the national targets. Each LEA's Education Development Plan will not be approved if their designated targets are not achieved.

As a consequence, the leeway for consensus on targets between LEAs and schools will be severely restricted. No LEA will be prepared to allow its schools individually to jeopardise the collective targets demanded by Government. The net effect for schools could be that many will be faced with achieving unrealistic demands.

If fears over target setting were not enough, teachers face other factors which generate stress. Prior to the General Election, the Government promised that it would review the Office for Standards in Education. It hasn't.

Despite soothing noises from OFSTED that excessive preparation for inspections is not necessary, pre-OFSTED high anxiety and post-OFSTED collapse is still endemic among teachers. No advice from any quarter will change teachers' certain belief that OFSTED inspections represent, for themselves and their careers, a very real threat.

There are other examples of a triumph of determination over reality. While literacy and numeracy in primary schools has been given the highest priority, the Government maintains that the national curriculum review has to wait until the year 2000, an inconsistent and unnecessary approach.

Inexplicably the Government has dipped its toe into classroom organisation, deciding that setting is good and mixed ability is bad, despite the reality that for many pupils, such as those in Year 7, mixed ability groupings are vital.

LEAs are expected to immediately become the central drivers for school improvement despite the previous 18 years of barely tolerated existence.

And at the centre of each teacher's day-to-day life lies the constant tug of administrative work outside teaching; administrative work which the Government's bureaucracy working party can only reduce if policies are changed.

Teachers welcomed the new Labour Government, particularly for its policies on education. Many of those policies, if implemented properly, will affect positively the achievements of pupils and the conditions of teachers. This fact is being obscured by the Government's own version of the Great Leap Forward. Pressure far outweighs support.

For teachers and their union, the line has to be drawn. While promoting education, the NUT will protect its members from excessive workloads and from the effects of hastily implemented and sometimes ill-thought-out policies.

The instinct of some Government advisers is to shoot the messenger. It will be a test of the Government's leadership whether it listens to those advisers or whether it moves to the genuine partnership with teachers which seemed to be heralded on May 1.

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