Rattling the cage

Autonomy is a funny thing. Everyone likes the idea of being free to do what they want, but the moment they possess such freedom, many throw themselves back into the embrace of the familiar.

I read about an experiment in which scientists took chimpanzees that had been bred and raised in cages and opened the doors to see what happened. The result was predictable and desperately sad. Many ignored the new exit. Some eventually crept out like criminals - and then returned to the cages, terrified by a world without bars. Some even closed the doors.

I'm reminded of this when I read about some of the reactions to new powers. Whatever you think of academies, they certainly offer a world outside the cage of prescription - or at least a bigger one, with power over the curriculum, hiring, timetables and so on. Some schools seize the chance, others stare at the future like a deer contemplating an SUV.

Formal assessment is an example of this timidity. Free from its ghastly clutches, schools rushed to.keep it. On one hand, who can blame them? When an inspector calls, they'll expect to see progress, and hell mend the school with a home-made system of assessment.

This raises the question of what we have been fighting for. Since before I started teaching, schools have groaned under the lash of top-down leadership and micro-management. How can we be expected to be treated like a profession, when any time we're offered the reins we pass them back to our captors?

At the other end of the spectrum, some school leaders have the habit of simply occupying the space at the table previously filled by the masters. Given freedom, they prescribe their own orthodoxies and fancies to staff. The king is dead, they think, as they hop on to the throne. Any school that tells its staff exactly how to teach, and enforces that dogma with mock inspections, has become a quisling for the worst imagined excesses of the inspectorate.

Teaching should be a joyful, difficult sculpting of your own style from the clay of possibility. Of course, we should all still expect to be held accountable for our efforts, and any class doing badly (by whatever metric) should indicate a training need in the teacher.

But so long as the children are safe and learning, what does it matter? And if we endlessly dictate what teachers must and mustn't do, what space is left for personal growth and professional development? We aren't postmen - we don't deliver lessons. We teach, and teaching is a relationship.

Freedom is universally considered to be a good; few have ever campaigned to be less free. But the price of freedom is responsibility, and if we ever want to be taken seriously, we have to embrace that which isn't easy or convenient, and pursue the difficult, the daunting and the unknown.

In short, we have to deserve to be free. And to treat freedom as something precious. Otherwise we may as well lock ourselves back in our cages.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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