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'Look to the 1980s for lessons on great education’

In the days of mullet hair and leg-warmers teachers had freedom. Today, the systemisation of virtually everything dominates their lives

Teachers have good reason to look back upon the 1980s as a golden age, writes Yvonne Williams

The UCL research comparing teachers’ reasons for coming into the profession and their reasons for leaving or wanting to leave makes heartbreaking reading. The title says it all: "What motivates people to teach, and why do they leave? Accountability, performativity and teacher retention."

It shows that Britain isn’t just squandering the greatest resource it has to improve the lives of young people but that the profession I have believed in for so long has lost its way.

Thinking about this takes me back to the start of my own career, all the hopes and fears, the nervousness that every teacher should feel when meeting classes and subsequently new classes for the first time. I was daunted, yes – but I wasn’t crushed by the responsibility and the expectations placed upon me. This isn’t the first time I have wondered just why it is that modern education is the perfect breeding-ground for dysfunctional levels of anxiety in so many of its participants.

Anne Nicholls’ "Seven signs you were a teacher in the 1980s"  article wafts in the unforgettable aroma of Banda fluid. It’s the very whiff of nostalgia for an era that began in desperately high youth unemployment and ended with the illusion of prosperity in the outside world.

In teaching, it started with an array of qualifications promoting teacher independence. And, of course, it ended with the national curriculum hitting the education system. The writing was on the wall.

Freedom of choice and innovation were the hallmarks of early '80s teaching – from 16+ exams to coursework A levels that genuinely prepared students for the methodology of university education.

At their inception, GCSEs were actually fit for purpose because they weren’t strangled by an accountability framework that made every teacher fear the consequences of any dip in the performance of any member of the class, no matter how transient. In English language and literature, this 1980s qualification allowed teachers to set assignments which could be both controlled and developmental. Teachers learned how to design tasks and assessment. They collaborated in local consortia. These were very necessary intellectual and developmental activities. In other words, teachers’ efforts were channelled into teaching and their identity derived from the intellectual pedagogical pursuit.

When we talk about professional identity and performance in the 21st century, it’s more about the latest rating from lesson observations, book scrutinies and pupil voice. Yes, in the '80s books did get looked at, homework setting was checked and pupils had views, but these were treated proportionately. Heads of department discussed curriculum, actual subject materials and suggested strategies where necessary.

There was no internet on which to search for pre-prepared essays or mechanistic teaching models. Now, thanks to over-regulation, examinations are over-engineered – all room for creative thought and diversity of response is well-nigh eliminated. Current examinations have microscopically-detailed mark schemes in booklets, so little trust is there in teachers’ judgement.

In the late '80s, pupils who would have coasted through exam-based courses in English were working hard every lesson on coursework and learning how to write as well as how to think about the subject. The only problem which could arise was that parents – or, in very rare cases, a home tutor – might have a hand in the writing. But investigation of potential malpractice was much less fraught because the teacher’s professional judgement was respected.

And teacher development? The best course I have ever been on (one evening a week, plus residential weekends) was on the use of counselling skills in the development of learning. It was holistic, equipping the course delegates with an array of interpersonal skills and providing genuine reflection into the individual’s life experiences and the ways in which these shaped their responses to their charges. The greatest asset of the course was that it encouraged people to put aside judgements and to develop keen listening skills. The weekend courses returned us to the classroom with a much deeper understanding of our pupils and their motivation.

It’s all too easy to portray the 1980s as an idiosyncratic era of mullet hair, leg-warmers, Dynasty-style shoulder-pads, and Banda machines. It may have been a decade of temporary contracts because the supply of competent teachers outstripped demand, but it was a time when teachers could reasonably expect to be able to rent within the catchment area and later afford to buy property. Holidays were uncluttered by cramming-for-all revision courses, extra revision set up on internet platforms, or further marking.

Sadly, a new Puritanism, alongside the systemisation of virtually everything, has deprived today’s newest recruits of the pleasure of teaching.

In the 1980s, there was the reality of education. What we have now is a virtual education, so strong is the focus on grades: an illusion of progress anchored in endless “progress” graphs which need to give endlessly positive messages. The substance melted away a long time ago – and we are all the poorer for it.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the south of England

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