A vision of the future state of education

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
What reforms are in store for teachers over the next 40 years? Neil Munro gazes into his crystal ball

Prediction is a tricky business, foolhardy perhaps. The state of the educational nation in 2045 might nonetheless be predictable. Scotland is nothing if not a cautious nation, and certainly a cautious educational one.

It is probably a safe bet to suggest that whatever reforms there might be will not be pushed through in a hasty fashion: the protracted implementation of the Standard grade and Higher Still programmes are testimony to that (although the swift adoption of the 16-18 action plan in further education revealed colleges to be more nimble on their feet than schools).

What were they saying in 1965? In his message of welcome to the new TES Scotland, Willie Ross, the Scottish Secretary, struck a note that will be familiar today and, almost certainly, in 40 years' time: "One of the great needs in education is to set flowing through all our schools and colleges the many ideas and experiments which are coming out of the vast amount of thinking and inquiry that is going on at all levels.

"Individual teachers, administrators and all concerned with education must have every opportunity of keeping abreast of the rapid advances which are being made in methods, techniques and so on."

An early call for teachers' continuing professional development perhaps? Or an awareness that learning about learning must assume greater importance? Or a message that teachers must stay connected, not just to their own lessons but to the lessons from research? It certainly does not read now, 40 years on, like any endorsement of the "one-size-fits-all" comprehensive school which is assumed to have existed and is now out of political vogue.

Although the focus on education is now more firmly on what is happening in the classroom - and is likely to remain so - it is politicians who set the tone and the framework, and that is likely to remain so also. The Prime Minister's mantra of "education, education, education", if a little frayed, is ample proof of that. And the biggest single political change of the last 40 years, the creation of the Scottish Parliament, has demonstrated that education will always be treated as a suitable case for legislation.

The biggest single educational change, apart from the gathering forces of technology which is written about elsewhere in this issue, is probably a subtle one and one that will persist: the growing emphasis on the primacy of the teacher and the related sense that a teacher must also be a learner.

These preoccupations, and the way they connect to intelligently applied leadership and to the importance of thinking skills, are unlikely to go away.

There is also an acceptance that the words of wisdom directed at how teachers should treat their pupils must be consistent and apply to teachers as well. We are constantly told about the importance of pupils' esteem, motivation, creativity and enterprise. We don't hear it so much in the context of teachers and I predict that, increasingly, we will.

The speaker at last year's SETT event in Glasgow took as his starting point what is probably now a consensus in the profession that everyone has "a latent talent for creativity, imagination, vision, motivation and communication". That should be a mantra for teachers as well as pupils.

If the last 40 years have one single message for the next 40, it is that lasting change cannot be effected or effective unless teachers are convinced and consulted. That might make change painfully slow, but the alternative is the equally painful events surrounding the exam debacle of 2000 and the Higher Still reforms which triggered it. There has been frequent comment, for example, that the success of the early intervention programme on basic skills, compared with the tortured progress of the 5-14 reforms, has been precisely because it was "bottom up" (a phrase I predict will not wither). Politicians, while they may face the traditional spats with the teaching unions over the next 40 years, have probably now absorbed that lesson. Whether they will temper their natural inclination to legislate on everything that moves is more in doubt.

But teachers should not assume too much from any lovefest with politicians.

Schools, so central to individuals and to the nation, will always be a political target and the way they have been held increasingly accountable reflects that - "tough, intelligent accountabilities," to quote the current mantra. The unions have now come to accept that, and it seems laughable today that they were predicting the collapse of civilisation as we know it when school inspection reports started being published in the iconic year of 1984.

There will, of course, continue to be disputes of other kinds which do not involve politicians but are rooted in learning. The growing interest in emotional intelligence, esteem, motivation, critical thinking, brain-based learning and so on shows no sign of abating, and other intellectual notions will assuredly surface. Academic debates will be at the heart of these and will centre on the claims of neuroscience, which have been dominated by the two camps - the "globalists" (who believe that all areas of the brain have an equal ability to perform) and the "localists" (who believe the opposite).

The one skill which will stand teachers in good stead in the future will be the ability to spot the ideas with potential from these debates and isolate the rest. I still treasure the comment by Professor Michael Fullan, talking to teachers in the unlikely setting of New Cumnock, that the only reason people like him are referred to as gurus is that most people don't know how to spell the word "charlatan".

So the ferment of ideas will continue, and Willie Ross's vision of a thinking profession will bear fruit. The new generation of younger teachers, which will inherit the nation's classrooms over the next 10 years, will have greater confidence to do things differently, using the power of information technology. As a result, they will be treated as proper professionals, with respect for their judgment and autonomy - but not the autonomy of the past, in which they held sway behind the closed classroom door. A collegiate spirit, central to a profession, should be more evident.

What those teachers will teach, of course, will be perenially open to debate. In terms of the curriculum, it will essentially be about the primary versus secondary model. Or, as Margaret Doran, then head of schools with Stirling Council, put it in her comments to the parliamentary education committee's inquiry into the school curriculum: "Are we to continue to teach compartmental subjects, or do we develop the capacity of every teacher to teach the whole child?" We may be revisiting that issue in 2045.

Like the poor, the other concerns of teachers are always likely to be with us. I confidently expect, at the grand age of 93, to hear union denunciations of class sizes of 15 as "ridiculous for an education system that seeks to be fit for the middle of the 21st century".

Neil Munro is editor of The TES Scotland.

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