On account of everything

5th July 2013 at 01:00
Forget initiative - in the current climate of fear, teachers are monitored and manacled like never before

It was called using your initiative. But if you are a teacher under the age of 45, you will probably have to run the term through Dictionary.com to know what I'm talking about.

I had been in my first teaching job at a large inner-city college for about a week when my section leader said he had an opportunity for me. "There's a hundred or so science students down at the annex who need an English class," he said.

"Big class," I ventured.

"Not one class, you simpleton, but four. The English as a foreign language bods have given us three part-time bods for the other three. You'll be able to spot them because they'll be the ones wearing the sandals. I'm putting you in charge of sorting it all out."

"But I'm new," I said.

He looked at me as if I had just won first prize in the wimp of the month competition. "William Pitt the Younger was prime minister when he was your age."

I had never even been to the Edinburgh Road annex. When I arrived, the students were milling around in one of the communal areas, waiting for the man who would be bringing them English.

I found my three new colleagues drinking tea in the canteen. Only one of them was wearing sandals. Together, we worked out a method of testing the students before ushering them into the wholly inadequate classrooms we had been given. By the following week we had processed the tests and sorted them into four tiered classes. As the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, I took the "top" class, ie, those who could at least already speak the language - and managed to get a good proportion of them through their GCSE exam a year later.

I could have used a bit more support and guidance. I knew nothing, but was being told I could do more or less what I liked.

Thirty-plus years on and it might be reasonable to assume that I have learned a thing or two about teaching and learning. But today I, along with most teachers in the sector, find myself monitored, managed and manacled like never before.

Most of it comes from above. It's not that the people in management are any different today, but the demands on them are. In an era of accountability, fear sets in. Some call it a climate of fear, and in many ways that's not too wide of the mark.

Managers must be seen to be doing something. They need a piece of paper - usually a spreadsheet - to show to someone above them. To get that, they come to you. They tell you what you should be doing and when you should be doing it. Then they ask you to write it all down, often in a different and more complicated format from the similar request they laid on you last week.

Recently, too, the agencies that validate students' work have been getting in on the act. Once their role was to ensure that students' work was at the appropriate level. Now they want a hand in everything: what work you set, how you set it and when you set it. You can still wipe your bottom in your own way, but that's under review.

Initiative? Not a chance.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London.

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