A supply teacher's lesson in plain speaking

28th February 2003 at 00:00
I WAS struck by the anonymous article (TESS, January 31) describing the experiences of a primary teacher who, after a break of 17 years, had returned to the classroom to undertake long-term supply work. She found that the staff were welcoming and supportive and, to her delight, that she still loved teaching children.

What she found difficult was the intimidating language of 5-14 and the amount of time spent on assessment, recording and reporting. At the end of her stint she asked herself: "Could I stand the hypocrisy of using a language I found alien and meaningless?"

In previous columns I have highlighted the importance of language and the power of official discourse to shape our professional thinking. The use of approved terminology - such as the strands, targets, outcomes and levels of 5-14 - serves several purposes. First, it gives a pseudo-scientific gloss to something that may, in fact, be quite arbitrary. By setting out "guidelines" in a seemingly systematic tabular form the impression is given that what is offered has some firm rationale. It is just as likely to be the product of the distorted imaginations of "experts" sitting in a smoke-free (but caffeine enriched) room.

Second, the development and promotion of jargon acts as a device to exclude, separating those who have been initiated into the mysteries of the approved language from uninitiated outsiders. Thus parents and pupils struggle to understand the significance of the terminology used. From the perspective of those who collude in the process, however, there is the distinct advantage that a willingness to follow the favoured linguistic fashion opens up career opportunities. In the case of 5-14, the assessment "anoraks" have had a field day.

The third effect is the most sinister. Having to employ the official language of curriculum and assessment to describe the work of the classroom effectively locks teachers into that kind of thinking. They find it hard to conceive of any other way of explaining what they do. It becomes a form of professional indoctrination which serves to brainwash staff into chanting nothing but the 5-14 mantra (breadth, balance, continuity). It takes an outsider, like the supply teacher, to perceive just how deranged the whole process has become.

The damaging consequences of all this can also be seen in official reports.

Some of these are so mind-numbingly boring and the language so rebarbative that the alternative of banging one's head against a brick wall seems wildly attractive. (Kind offers of help in this regard will be declined.) I have often had the doubtful pleasure of listening to "worthies" of the education establishment who clearly read nothing other than their own internal documents and show no capacity to think "outside the box".

Against this background, the signs of revolt by primary headteachers (TESS, January 10) are to be welcomed. They have protested about curriculum overload and the complex and confusing nature of the 5-14 programme. The Scottish Executive's response to the national debate now indicates, however belatedly, a willingness to review the primary curriculum and simplify and reduce the amount of assessment.

But who is likely to carry out the review and come forward with new proposals? Why, none other than those who were responsible for 5-14 in the first place. Watch out for Dickensian Gradgrinds reinventing themselves as Rousseauesque progressives. The only trouble is that they will be unable to express even the most exciting ideas in anything other than the dead language of officialdom.

Perhaps they should employ the supply teacher as a consultant in common sense and plain speaking.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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