A licence to lay blame

17th January 2014 at 00:00

An open letter to Tristram Hunt,

shadow education secretary:

You have made it clear that you will revive the idea floated during the last Labour government of regular "relicensing" of teachers. Shamefully, you are lining up behind education secretary for England Michael Gove's agenda of blaming teachers for the problems of education and society more generally. The root causes of these problems lie in cuts, underfunding and poverty. As a historian you should know that there is a clear correlation between social deprivation and educational performance.

If you took the time to talk to teachers, you might realise that the real issue that needs to be addressed is not the myth of "underperformance" but the fact that huge numbers of excellent teachers are leaving the profession because of the impossible demands we face. Instead, you are joining the blame game. Under Mr Gove's performance-related pay legislation, the threat is that we won't be awarded a pay rise. Under Mr Hunt, the threat will be that we won't even keep our jobs.

In Britain, politicians of all stripes have embraced the ethos of the US model of education over the past two decades. They support the privatisation of education in the form of academies and free schools, they share the same mania for testing and all choose to ignore the fact that class and poverty are fundamental factors in shaping attainment.

Professor Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former US assistant secretary of education, explained in a 2010 article for The Wall Street Journal why she was opposed to blaming teachers for the problems of America's education system: "The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools. They do not recognise that schools are often the anchor of their communities."

Fellow American education writer Alfie Kohn has similarly noted how politicians and the educational establishment express "outrage" at low academic achievement and believe in quick fixes such as blaming teachers. "Many public officials, along with like-minded journalists and other observers, are apt to minimise the matter of resources and assume that everything deficient about education for poor and minority children can be remedied by more forceful demands that we 'raise the bar'," he writes. "The implication here would seem to be that teachers and students could be doing a better job but have, for some reason, chosen not to do so and need only be bribed or threatened into improvement."

This is all in sharp contrast to Finland, which is widely recognised as having one of the best education systems in the world. Children there don't start formal education until they are 7 and education is free at all levels. There are no school rankings or inspections and students take only one standardised test when they are 16. Teachers are well-paid, respected individuals. There has been no privatisation and there is an emphasis on social equality that is sadly lacking in Britain with its mania for privatisation of public services.

Dr Dylan Murphy, History teacher.

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