A very professional division

7th May 2010 at 01:00

Do you think of education as one big happy family, or more as a dysfunctional community with the members pursuing separate, and often conflicting, agendas?

At the level of rhetoric, there is a general endorsement of the ideal of professionalism, promoted in teacher training, in standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland and invoked by teacher unions. This suggests a measure of unity of purpose. But it does not stop various groups pursuing sectional interests and passing adverse judgment on colleagues in other fields.

For example, there is often competition for resources among phases - pre- school, primary, secondary - and this can lead to a tendency to blame other sectors for perceived failings in the system. Transition from pre- school to primary, and primary to secondary, is taken more seriously now, and dialogue between the sectors has improved, but that does not prevent mutual criticism.

Contested issues relating to "play", "active learning" and "readiness" can easily start a turf war between pre-school and primary staff. And debate about underachievement in S1 and S2 may provoke explanations and counter- explanations: primary staff claiming secondary colleagues fail to build on achievements in upper primary; secondary staff arguing that pupils arrive with over-estimates of their levels of understanding.

Even within particular sectors, tribal attitudes can be detected. In secondaries, this can be seen most obviously in relation to the perceived status of different subjects. Some are seen as intellectually demanding, others may attract disparaging remarks about their worth.

In primary schools, there are arguments about the relative merits of the four-year BEd degree compared with the one-year postgraduate route, which can lead to inflexible attitudes and affect the reception some students on placement receive.

Tensions are also apparent when new areas of expertise develop. For example, the emergence of "special educational needs" as an area which improved provision for children with learning difficulties, in itself a desirable development, was accompanied by a rapid expansion of courses offering qualifications in this field. But the new specialism was often seen as a kind of gated community, with those inside and outside the gates taking up entrenched positions.

"Traditional" teachers queried the basis of its claimed expertise, or saw it as a way of unloading "problem" pupils. Equally, some of those with the new qualifications saw them as a licence to pronounce on matters in which "ordinary" teachers had no credibility. The outcome was a situation in which the laudable aim of "inclusion" was sometimes pursued in an "exclusive" way.

"Professionalism" can thus be a source of division as well as of unity. Self-interested tribalism often co-exists with a discourse of collective purpose which seems to express common professional aspirations. And when account is taken of the differential distribution of power - by including heads, inspectors, directors of education and teacher educators in the analysis - it is clear that the cohesion of the education system is quite fragile. This helps to explain why management is so successful in "divide and rule" tactics when faced with teacher unrest.

Walter Humes is research professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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