A rest would be a change

10th March 1995 at 00:00
Teachers Talk About Teaching, Edited by Judith Bell, Open University Press#163;9.99, 0 335 19174 6. May you live in interesting times!" runs the old Chinese curse and reading these accounts of teachers' professional lives brings home the enormous amount of change we have been through in the last few years. What is striking is how little good seems to have come of it yet.

The Open University has a reputation for positive attitudes and integrity of intellectual endeavour so we can assume that this is not a selective collection of negative views.

Indeed, some writers are very positive about the contribution they believe they have made and can still make to education. In most of these cases they are either new to teaching or have gained promotion away from subject responsibility or are involved in an expanding area such as careers. The deepest concerns are about subject teaching and finance.

Stephen Waters, an English teacher, is concerned about the speed, complexity and impracticality of the assessment arrangements and the way in which the subject content is being used to create belief in a national heritage culture based on values which were held by a narrow range of social groups before the 1930s.

These fears apply to other subjects. Karen Cowley observes that "Under the National Curriculum there is only one accepted version of knowledge."

Will teachers be allowed sufficient professional discretion to decide on what materials and methods are suitable for the pupils for whose progress they are responsible?

She argues that some autonomy is necessary in forging "a creative partnership with pupils" but that this has been undermined by league tables and persistent denigration of teachers' competence.

Strong feelings are expressed about Local Management of Schools. Far from being an opportunity to direct resources it is seen as a means of brutally weakening small schools which may be suffering from factors completely beyond their control.

Peter Swientozielskyj foresees head teachers forced to become accountants in schools with a cash driven curriculum while Ann Hanson catalogues an appalling sequence of events in which the governors of a primary school found themselves facing legal action in a desperate attempt to balance their budget.

One of her conclusions is that teachers will increasingly be appointed on short term contracts. "The career prospects for teachers seem to be little longer than three years before they then become too expensive". Another implication must surely be that there will soon be a shortage of our volunteer, unpaid governors.

Despite the determined optimism and personal achievements of the contributors, this book makes saddening reading. Such enormous amounts of time, energy and commitment have been devoted to a series of "reforms" in which there is little confidence and of which the most hopeful thing that can be said is that the future may be better.

Standards will not be raised by teachers who have been made to feel responsible for the problems and who are not merely over worked but undervalued and condemned by unrealistic demands to be less effective than they could be.

Sue Jones teaches at Sir Frederick Osborn School, Welwyn Garden City.

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