Fighting against the forces of darkness

BY the time this column is published you may have begun to backslide on those new year resolutions. Every time your nearest and dearest nags you about your determination to take more exercise, you may feel the need to go and lie down in a darkened room for an extended period.

As for that resolve to cut back on expenditure following the Christmas splurge, the only way of cheering yourself up when the credit card statements arrive may be to indulge in another bout of serial shopping.

Fear not. Help is at hand. Although your personal resolutions may have gone for a burton, there is still time to make a few professional resolutions. And if you can encourage colleagues to do likewise, it may even be possible to begin the process of fighting back against the forces of darkness in Scottish education. Here are just a few suggestions.

1. Start an underground newsletter, lampooning the "great" and the "good". I know of one institution where morale was so low, and management so impervious to its own failings, that staff were in despair. One teacher used his computer expertise to create a comic strip portraying instantly recognisable characters in a less than flattering light. Circulation had to be carefully controlled as some of the material verged on the actionable.

However, the fun gave everyone a boost and the determination to fight on. Eventually the good guys won. Humour can be a powerful tool.

2. Find out more about how the system works. We are all inclined to become obsessed with our own sphere of operation. But all sorts of pressures derive from groups and agencies outside the particular organisation in which we work. In my own case, I want to learn more about the economics of education and, as part of this, about the nature of the relationship between the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and the Scottish Executive.

Teachers in primary and secondary schools would do well to extend their knowledge of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, Learning and Teaching Scotland and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education. These bodies seek to influence what goes on in schools. The more that is known about their aims and systems, the more teachers will be able to respond effectively.

3. Begin to ask "Why?" questions, not just "How?" questions. I sometimes feel that the establishment doesn't like teachers who think. They prefer conformists who are only concerned about the operational implications of policies, not the reasoning behind them. Asking seemingly innocent questions - about the basis of new proposals, the principles that underlie them and whose interests they really serve - can put the decision-makers on the defensive and force them to explain and justify their actions.

4. Take control of your own continuing professional development agenda. The post-McCrone settlement opens up opportunities for teachers to define their own CPD needs. Enlightened headteachers encourage staff to go beyond narrowly functional in-service courses to explore a wide range of ideas, drawing on sources other than official policy documents. Teachers who are themselves intellectually energised are better equipped to enliven the interest of their pupils than those who simply stick with tried and tested routines.

5. Make waves in the run-up to elections to the Scottish Parliament. These can take many forms: bombarding your MSP with questions about education; writing to the press (from your home address, otherwise the thought police may be after you); setting up a web-based conference; taking part in radio phone-in programmes. Apathy is the enemy of democracy.

Small actions by individuals can make a difference. Don't let the bureaucrats get you down.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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