All losers in the wrong competition;Another voice;Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
SUE JONES Another Voice I SAID goodbye to teaching on the last day of the summer term. Some of my colleagues moved on to other teaching jobs, but others simply got out. No one retired. It is difficult to remember who last stayed to the end. I know of no one now who wants to.

All this may be in line with general economic developments. Business guru Charles Handy talked of a "portfolio society" in which we develop a collection of skills to offer in the marketplace.

Schools standards minister Estelle Morris has suggested that a much wider range of people will be working for a much shorter time, perhaps six or seven years, in education.

At best this could mean that education has become a broadly understood and accepted sector of an integrated and purposeful society. At worst it could be seen as something for the gaps between the important and well-paid career moves or even a kind of voluntary service in the Third World of British youth below the upper reaches of the league tables.

David Puttnam launched the Teacher Awards to raise the status of the profession but few of the winners would fit the profile of a portfolio wielding whiz-kid.

Many were middle-aged women who had stayed in one area, or even one school, saw themselves as part of a team and were seen by others as part of the community.

These women wanted to celebrate the collective achievements of their pupils, colleagues, governors and parents. Their view of themselves as team workers was not just modesty but a statement about an effective and desirable way to work so that all can achieve.

They did not thank league tables, national tests, teacher assessments or OFSTED. They did not talk about success in terms of competition or of being better than others or their pupils achieving more than others. It was not necessary for someone to fail for them to perceive that they and their pupils had succeeded.

We are told that competition drives up standards and that without it we become slack and lazy. There are a lot of sporting metaphors, such as level playing fields. Teachers' gut response is that the rules have been changed and the goal posts shifted. They know there is something wrong with the analogy.

Competition means limiting success to a minority. You can only win if someone else loses. Prizes do not go below third position, however good the performance might be.

Successive governments have argued that competition is not between schools but against national benchmarks. All schools could get good inspectors' reports.

All schools could achieve a high percentage of five A-C passes at GCSE.

This argument is spurious. The benchmarks will shift. As soon as the national average goes up the debate about the value and difficulty of GCSE re-emerges.

Local attention turns to A-level results or Oxbridge entrants or whatever else the most effectively publicity-conscious headteacher decides to put in the glossy brochure. Competition increases the desire to win, not the debate on what is worth achieving.

In the past 25 years there has been precious little debate about real educational worth. National management of education has been completely top down. Power has been concentrated at the Department for Education and Employment and responsibility has been devolved as low as possible with the proposal for payment by results as the final expression of this policy.

Many politicians know that the system is unfair. They want to see crude league tables replaced by something more informative and to have schools judged by value-added criteria. They want funding and resources adjusted to meet real need, but as long as they insist on a competitive system there will be losers.

The "success" of some children will define the relative "failure" of others.

Blame and shame will always attach to those who come last. All-round success comes only with all-round support and to pretend otherwise may be politically astute but is intellectually unviable and morally insupportable.

I have chosen to leave and I am one of the lucky ones who can do so. After all, it may be easier for a teacher to get into a new career than for a child in a failing school to get into a popular school.

Do I expect to get away from the harsh reality of competition by going into the market? Of course not, but while competition may have a place in the market, it has none in public service.

Sue Jones resigned as head of history at a Hertfordshire comprehensive in July.

She has now left teaching

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