Teachers are victims of the state and bureaucracy

Sheila Lawlor

Governments may come and go, but the teaching profession has come to recognise that, as this century draws to its close, officials not governments, rule the roost.

Earlier in the century, the German sociologist Max Weber analysed and re-analysed the nature of modern bureaucracy in a world which we now recognise to be our own: the new bureaucracy was inescapable and the power of the trained, specialist modern official was unbreakable.

For Weber, the employee was better off in private enterprise than in the state sector, where there was "no hope of winning any battle against the state bureaucracy". And he had another, equally enduring message. The bureaucratic state was anti-entrepreneurial, in that it absorbed capital to pay its machine - rather than investing in those who made wealth.

The result is that professionals such as teachers pay in two ways. Their salaries reflect a sum which reaches them much reduced by the costs of the bureaucrats; and meanwhile their professionalism is undermined by the diktat of officials.

The teaching profession provides a telling example of how this process works - especially since 1944, when teachers increasingly became the second tier in an expanding education service. Their training has been sanctioned by the twin axis of theorist and bureaucrat. Their terms of tenure are ordained by the local and central bureaucracy, and the nature of their teaching is now subject to official directive.

This has not stopped some able teachers persisting, but it has discouraged many bright young graduates from joining a profession where they are seen as second to the officials. No doctor or lawyer would stand for the status quo of the teacher. No official machine would determine how medicine or the law should be practised, how the aspirant trainee should train, or that mastery of the subject was somehow irrelevant to practice and progression in the profession.

In effect, teachers have become the victims of bureaucratisation - and possibly the willing victims. The notion of an education service with education professionals and officials determining its course has undermined the autonomy of professional teachers in the classroom, and limited the funds available to pay them.

The subject or subjects taught - of which the officials may well be ignorant - have been sidelined. And in a desperate attempt to redress the balance, governments have resorted to greater collectivism even when (as in the case of the last administration) at the same time preaching freedom. Teaching methods, curriculum norms, classroom organisation - even lesson lengths - are now officially recommended to meet the system's failings.

In reality, there is no one good pedagogic norm, no one standard class size, no one system, determined by the official which will make for good teaching. Each teacher is different, as is each class, each subject, each school and each pupil. The only common element is for the teacher to know the subjects to be taught, and to teach as he or she judges is best for the varying talents of the pupils.

Indeed, a future reform of teacher training where all aspiring teachers are taught in the subject department of universities by those qualified in their subjects will be an essential stage in restoring professionalism to a profession.

And like the doctor or lawyer, once the subject is mastered, the teacher can practise in the classroom, aided and supported by those with practical teaching experience.

Autonomy is a precondition of professionalism - the autonomy of the school and the autonomy of the profession itself. That the school should choose, promote, pay and, if necessary, give notice to the teacher is essential if teaching is to become the profession it should be again.

The maintained school, therefore, must become an independent trust, freed from its bureaucratic big brother, with a greater share of public funding than that which the system currently allows, having paid its officialdom.

Teachers would be employed by the school because they can teach the subjects of which they - and they alone - are the masters. The school would decide the nature of admissions and the organisation of classes.

The head and governing body may believe, with excellent teaching, monitoring of the pupils and management, that comprehensive entry is best. They may then decide to set or stream, judging how their individual teachers may best teach to the highest standard, or they may decide on mixed-ability classes.

Funding should follow the child, and parental choice - rather than complicated formulae imposed by Whitehall and the local authority - should be the rule of the day. In this way, the school would have the incentive to encourage its good teachers and take whatever steps are necessary to improve.

And what of the state, the officials and their bureaucratic programme? What of "national" standards, key stages, benchmarks, literacy hours, class sizes, recommended methods of teaching? Have they improved the lot of the teaching profession, or the standards their pupils reach?

The state should limit itself to establishing a framework for freedom and autonomy with minimum standards, monitored via a fair external exam system, while maintaining both a dispassionate inspectorate which reports on schools and a penalty system.

Minimum standards in this country - as in others - should be through a fair external exam or tests, where all pupils take examinations under similar conditions, externally set and externally marked. The inspectorate, which under the Office for Standards in Education continues to work for professional inspection, might seek to limit the myriad of criteria which it inherited from the practices of HMI so that inspection reports on output.

Only a free system provides the proper balance between internal autonomy and external checks. I have no doubt that such a future will come sooner rather than later. Initially this will be for reasons of efficiency, but ultimately it will be because one of the revolutions of the 21st century will be that foreshadowed by Weber - when he pondered how to make room for individual needs, given the all-powerful trend to bureaucratisation. The independent trust model for schools will provide an alternative to what he saw as the "enormous crushing power of this constantly growing structure".

Sheila Lawlor is director of the think-tank Politeia

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