Skip to main content

Been there, done that;Career development

The past is no longer a guide to the future. On the other hand, it's extraordinary how events repeat themselves, says Richard Aldrich

In Destination Z: The History of the Future, Robert Baldock describes five business scenarios for the first decade of the 21st century. All are radically different from each other. His basic message is that business people must accept change as a permanent feature in their lives. Alternative scenarios must be presented because "the past is no longer a reliable indicator of the future".

In the past 10 years, teachers have learned to accept change as a permanent feature in their lives. In this sense the future is not what it was. Since May 1997 and the advent of a Labour government, the pace of change has quickened rather than slowed.

The recent Green Paper is characteristically entitled Teachers: meeting the challenge of change. Should Michael Barber (former dean of new initiatives at the Institute of Education, University of London) and his colleagues at the Department for Education and Employment run out of ideas on how to keep teachers perpetually on the hop, "lateral thinker" Edward de Bono has recently been recruited to ensure a steady stream.

Some of the changes are mind-boggling. Information and communication technology (ICT), virtual organisations and globalisation offer ways of teaching and learning undreamed of only 10 years ago. Other currently unimaginable changes will surely follow.

But if there are changes, there are also continuities - both in terms of teachers' personal qualities and of pedagogical principles.

The fundamental qualities and skills of a good teacher - knowledgeable, keen, communicative, firm but fair, interested in pupils and their learning - have been consistently expounded and recognised across the millennia: from the Greeks to the Romans, from John Locke in the 17th century to Ted Wragg in the 20th. Locke's tips for teachers - for example, "praise in public, blame in private" - are as applicable now as they ever were. They are principles in the management of children (and adults) which have stood the test of time.

What of teaching as a profession? The continuities are all too obvious. In 1581 the great Elizabethan schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster, bemoaning his profession's low status and poor financial rewards, asked: "Why should not teachers be well provided for, to continue their whole lives in the schools, as divines, lawyers, physicians do in their several professions?" The simple answer is that in England, teachers as a group have failed to gain power over knowledge and its production. For centuries, the preferred destination of graduates from the country's only two universities was the rectory rather than the schoolhouse.

Continuities, therefore, must be set alongside changes, and alongside the cyclical nature of change. Patterns occur, and historical turning points are apparent. In this sense, the past is as reliable an indicator of the future as it ever was.

For example, in the 1860s (as in the 1980s) central government power over teachers was much increased. Robert Lowe, vice-president of the Committee of Council on Education, declared that teachers had been getting above themselves and that it was necessary to bring a little free trade into the system. The laudable purpose of the Revised Code, introduced in 1862, was to raise standards, particularly in the basic subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic.

This was to be achieved by the introduction of a national curriculum, national testing and a system of annual inspections. Central government grants to schools, and hence indirectly to teachers, were based principally on payment by results.

The new system, however, produced many unfortunate outcomes. Teachers soon learned to teach to the tests, so that intended minima became maxima; other areas of the curriculum were neglected. On occasion teachers indulged in deliberate subterfuge to deceive the inspectors. There were numerous instances of breakdowns and resignations - in some cases, indeed, including that of the 23-year-old Frank Silverlock, a teacher in 1888 at Station Road school, Highbury, whose "boys did rather badly" - even of suicide.

Joseph Payne, the founder and headteacher of two schools, was the country's first professor of education. In 1872 he declared of the Revised Code that:

"The experiment which has now been tried for 10 years in England ought henceforth to take a place in the annals of education as an example to deter." His warning, however, went unheeded. Not for some 40 years did teachers, pupils and schools begin to recover from the dead hand of the Revised Code.

There are striking parallels between the educational scenario of 1872 and that of today. In 1988 central government began a similar programme of raising standards by the centralisation of power and devolution of blame. Some gains have been made, but the Green Paper of 1998 provides evidence of the losses - in terms of declining recruitment and high wastage rates among teachers.

What will happen over the next 10 years? Education will no doubt remain high on the political agenda, especially if, as seems likely, Labour continues in office.

Targets and league tables will continue to take centre stage. The consequences of failure will become so great that some teachers and schools, even DFEE officials and ministers, will be tempted to resort to acts of subterfuge. This nightmare scenario will only be avoided if the new General Teaching Council becomes the authoritative voice, not only of the teaching profession, but also, given its broad and representative membership, of the education service as a whole.

Richard Aldrich is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London University

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you