Teachers in chains

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It was called "using your initiative". But if you are a teacher under the age of 45, you will probably have to run the term through Dictionary.com to know what I'm talking about.

I had been in my first teaching job at a large inner-city college for no more than a week when my section leader said he had an opportunity for me. "A hundred or so science students down at the annex need an English lesson," he told me.

"Big class," I ventured.

"Not one class, you simpleton, but four. The English as a foreign language people have given us three part-time teachers for the other three classes. You'll be able to spot them because they'll be the ones wearing the sandals. I'm putting you in charge of sorting it all out."

"But I'm new," I said. "And I've never done anything like this before."

He looked at me as if I had just won first prize in the "wimp of the month" competition. "William Pitt the Younger was prime minister when he was your age," he said.

I had never even been to the annex. When I arrived, the students were milling around in one of the communal areas, waiting for the man who would be bringing them English.

I found my three new colleagues drinking tea in the canteen. Only one of them, I noted, was wearing sandals. Together, we worked out a method of testing the students before ushering them into the wholly inadequate classrooms we had been given. By the next week, we had processed the tests and sorted them into four tiered classes. As the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I took the "top" class - those who could at least already speak the language - and managed to get a good proportion of them through their GCSE exam a year later.

To be honest, I could have used a bit more support and guidance. I knew nothing but was told that I could do more or less what I liked.

More than 30 years on, it might be reasonable to assume that I have learned a thing or two about teaching and learning. But today, along with pretty much every other teacher, I find myself monitored, managed and manacled as never before. It's not that the people in management are any different today, it's that the demands on them are. In an era of accountability, fear sets in. Some call it a climate of fear, and in many ways that's not too wide of the mark.

Managers have to be seen to be doing something. They need a piece of paper - often in the form of a spreadsheet - to show to someone above them. To get that, they come to you. They tell you what you should be doing and when you should be doing it. Then they ask you to write it all down, often in a different and more complicated format from the similar request they laid on you the previous week.

Recently, too, the agencies that validate our students' work have been getting in on the act. Once, their role was to ensure that students' work was at the appropriate level. Now they want to have a hand in everything: what work you set, how you set it, when you set it and how you mark it. You're still allowed to wipe your bottom in your own way but that's probably under review.

Initiative? Not a chance.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London, England.

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