One division that needs doctoring

Michael Barber

At the beginning of last month an historic meeting took place. What follows is a slightly amended extract from the press release issued at its conclusion: The meeting on November 3 and 4 was organised specifically to look beyond the host of problems arising in current day-to-day educational practice, including, not least, the stress and poor morale among teachers and to raise challenging questions about the role of teachers in society.

Despite the constantly changing context, content and nature of teaching today ... a strong consensus emerged on the need to maintain and enhance the quality of the teacherpupil relationship as the key attribute of teachers' professionalism. The debate ranged over a number of questions about the future, for example, what kind of teacher does society want?' The meeting agreed on the need to continue to base its core values for the future on a restatement of basic virtues. These include integrity, competence, responsibility, advocacy. It is through the advocacy of these ideals and the process of self-regulation that the profession demonstrates its commitment to high quality education.

In the opening paragraph of Huckleberry Finn, his masterpiece, Mark Twain reminds his reader of what happened in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That was, he says, "mostly a true book with some stretchers". The quoted press extract is also mostly true, with one large stretcher. I hope the BMA will forgive me. I have altered the statement they issued on behalf of the half-dozen organisations which represent doctors by replacing "doctor" and "medical" with "teacher" and "education". Doing so makes transparent the remarkable similarity between the dilemmas facing the two great professions.

There is a difference. Doctors collectively are doing something about it. The press notice continued (quoting accurately this time): The meeting decided to take these initiatives further by continuing the historic alliance of all parties to this conference as a forum for future action ...

Within the past 12 months there have been free and fair democratic elections in South Africa and Mozambique; King Hussain has set foot on Israeli soil and Gerry Adams has been to Westminster. Now the medical profession has shown that it, too, intends to overcome its historic divisions in order to face up successfully to the staggering challenges of the 21st century. Yet in England and Wales the teaching profession remains hopelessly fragmented and hence disturbingly ill-prepared for its collective destiny.

On the governance side, responsibility for the profession is carved up among a variety of agencies. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority establishes what teachers should teach; the Teacher Training Agency decides how they should be trained to teach it; OFSTED decides whether they are teaching it well; and the School Teachers' Review Body decides how much they should be paid for their often superhuman efforts. Lurking behind the quangos is the Department for Education which appoints their members and sets out their responsibilities. It, too, holds crucial cards in its hand; for example, it decides who should, or should not, be awarded Qualified Teacher Status.

Faced with this splintered model of governance, the profession itself provides no countervailing force for unity. On the contrary, it remains divided against itself. The six unions, with differences of tradition, history, and leadership show no signs of working together. Indeed, it is a bitter irony that the only pure market in education is the competition among the teacher unions for members.

The argument for unity would appear to be as strong as it is obvious. There is, however, a counter view that to have several unions reflecting the differing attitudes that are bound to exist within a profession as diverse as teaching is better than attempting to promote the lowest common denominator. Either way, the present state of affairs encourages a focus on what divides the profession rather than on what unites it. Public arguments over tactics and attitude to government policy proposals drown the possibility of a potentially irresistible unity around the three factors which define what it is to be a teacher: teaching, learning and the teacher-pupil relationship.

Worse still, there is no organisation, either within the profession or among the quangocracy, whose task it is to think hard about the long-term future of the profession as a whole. A union which asks controversial questions about the long-term future runs the risk of short-term unpopularity and loss of membership. Meanwhile the quangos, caught up as they are in party politics, have little incentive to look beyond the next general election.

The consequences of this combination of division and short-termism have been little short of catastrophic, not only for the status, image and influence of the profession but for national policy development. Though the government has recently adopted a welcome pragmatism, its arrogance before 1993 was partly because there was no credible and coherent professional alternative to its agenda. Tinkering with the palpably inadequate pre-1988 model had little to be said for it.

No wonder John Patten seemed to believe for a while that he could walk on water! As if to reinforce the point he was effectively sunk at the precise moment when for a few brief weeks in the summer of 1993 the profession not only acted together but presented a jointly agreed statement on the curriculum. Sir Ron Dearing has since adopted many of those proposals. The truth is that unless the teaching profession collectively sets an agenda for its own development role, someone else will. Complaining after the event cuts little ice.

There are major issues which will affect dramatically the course of teaching which are both broader and deeper than much of the political debate of the past few years.

How can the remarkable changes in communications technology help to improve teaching and learning? What tasks in school require the skills of the professionally qualified teacher and what could be done equally well by para-professional partners? How do we ensure teachers' own learning needs are given the priority they require but have never had? And above all, how do we create a productive set of relationships between the teaching profession, government and society?

The profession should be leading the search for answers to these, and other, questions. A general teaching council must surely be the goal, but in the meantime, the case for emulating the recent doctors' summit is very strong. True, surely, with no stretchers?

Register to continue reading for free

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

Michael Barber

Latest stories