Skip to main content

Build up the ramparts of the professional castle again

In the early 1980s, when Sir Keith Joseph still strode the earth and Kenneth Baker was a little-known junior minister harmlessly occupied with information technology, I compiled a 10-part careers guide for The Sunday Times Magazine. On teaching, I quoted David Hargreaves, then chief inspector for inner London. "Other professionals get tired," he had said, "teachers become exhausted. " In that respect, I guess, nothing much has changed.

Nevertheless, I identified two big plus-points for anybody considering teaching as a career. First, the pressure to achieve definable results was less strong than in other professions. Second, teaching offered a high level of professional independence: "The teacher's classroom," I wrote, "is a professional castle."

I need hardly labour the point that both these advantages, and particularly the second, have disappeared. Indeed, all the talk of "delivery" makes it sound as though teachers work for the Post Office, with the difference that nobody yet presumes to advise postal workers on the length of stride they should take as they advance down the garden path.

Or, to borrow a metaphor from Professor Maurice Kogan, of Brunel University, teachers have become electricity sub-stations, feeding out knowledge that has been generated elsewhere, but still getting the blame for low voltage. Nor is the loss of autonomy confined to curriculum and teaching methods: the growing awareness of children's rights, combined with the rise of whole-school policies, leaves teachers severely circumscribed even on simple matters of discipline and class control.

And this is surely the hole at the heart of all New Labour's policies on education. Read the speeches of David Blunkett and Tony Blair. Read the White Paper. Read last week's report on teacher recruitment from the education and employment Select Committee. You will find many references to teachers' professionalism and to the need to enhance it, but nowhere will you find any definition of what that professionalism is supposed to consist.

The problem is far greater than most ministers and commentators suppose. The status the teaching profession automatically enjoyed in, say, the 1950s is never going to be restored. Teachers then stood out in any community, simply because they had a college education; in working-class areas, particularly, the profession offered the best example of upward mobility, because teachers were among the few visible middle-class role models. Now, when the university-educated segment of the population is so much greater, when people in all walks of life hold degrees, teachers are nothing special. To many young people, teaching now offers downward, not upward, mobility. Of all professions, only the Church has lost so dramatically from social change.

Further, teaching benefited for many years from being almost the only profession where women could compete on something like equal terms with men. Now, medicine, law, accountancy, industry, the City, all offer opportunities to women that were undreamt of a generation ago. Many able women graduates are reluctant to enter teaching precisely because, in the past, it was such a stereotypical female profession.

There is nothing much ministers can do about any of that. Nor can they help the perennial complaint that teachers don't get the same respect as doctors. People, as a rule, go to doctors only when something is already wrong with them. Since most ailments will in time clear up naturally anyway, doctors have always got credit which they don't truly deserve. Even when their patients die, or suffer permanent disablement, doctors are not thought to have made things worse. Rather, they are credited for doing their best against some terrible force of nature.

Teachers, by contrast, come on the scene only when nature has already wrought its greatest and most benign miracles of birth and growth. They receive creatures who are invariably thought by their parents to be geniuses, not to mention paragons of morality, good temper and general virtue. They will never, therefore, be acclaimed for making anything better; rather, they will always be criticised for turning gold into dross.

Again, no one can help it that advice on teaching, from people who have never been inside schools, is so plentiful. Teaching is political, and therefore, controversial, in a way that medicine and most other professions aren't. Teachers inevitably shape minds and instil values; their work is not reducible to a series of technical problems, such as removing an appendix or drawing up a will, or preparing a tax return. Politicians, parents, employers -even pupils - all have opinions, which they can and do express, about teaching styles and school subjects. We have long and heated public debates about the content of history lessons, but not about the treatment of fever.

For all these reasons, the odds are stacked against turning teaching into a high-status profession. This does not imply that the Government should give up, merely that it should try harder. The idea that an advertising campaign or a General Teaching Council or a dose of business acumen from the head of Reed Executive (who has been called in by Tony Blair) can change anything is laughable.

The Teacher Training Agency's solution is simply to set higher entry standards (whether of A-levels or degree class) to the profession. This is not as daft as it looks: as any university entrance tutor will tell you, if you suddenly decide to fix, say, three Bs as the entry level to your course, the achievement levels of your applicants often rise accordingly, because you have implied that your course carries a level of exclusivity and prestige.

In the same way, if you open a London restaurant, you can make it sought-after simply by charging very high prices, regardless of the quality of food or service. But when the TTA talks of making teaching one of the three top professions, alongside medicine and law, it should be clear what this entails.

Quite apart from the pay levels, both doctors and lawyers enjoy high levels of professional independence. Indeed, Aneurin Bevan was able to create a National Health Service in the first place only because he guaranteed the GPs' autonomy and, in his own words, stuffed the consultants' mouths with gold.

I am glad that everyone now uses the word "crisis" in relation to teacher recruitment. They weren't doing so even three months ago. But ministers show few signs of appreciating the deep-rooted nature of the problem. I fear the solution will be the same as it has been for every previous such crisis: to paper over the cracks, and to hang on in there until the next rise in unemployment.

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