Are we back in the land of the pharaohs?

21st November 1997 at 00:00
I wonder if you recall a number of years ago an advert of a young woman (in colour) sprinting through a hall full of dismal enslaved males (in mono), then throwing a lighted torch at a screen, all to project an image for a computer? Apparently it rates high as an adman's icon, and it came to mind the first time I read Setting Targets: A Strategy to Raise Standards.

I was breathless before I reached page two, surprised at the number of firelighters the Scottish Office had packed in. The Government clearly means business, and is going to bare knuckles on raising standards, and on achievement. No pious noises or soft shoe shuffling from the manifesto there. Targets are the talk of the town.

And so they should be. Without some kind of rationalisation of the various strands of achievement and standards necessary to allow us to elbow our way into a place in the Pacific Rim sunshine, the kind of progress we all want for our children will be hard to come by. It is easy to be swept away by the barely repressed rhetoric of the consultation document's expression of this, by its calls for schools to set targets for their own improvement, for consistency in targets, for the pursuit of excellence, for greater rigour in self-evaluation. It is easy, too, to forget for a few moments (though Setting Targets carefully reminds us) that we start from a position of strength, with a record of achievement and a committed teaching force.

But inevitably there is a question mark. A key player in the "Let's open a worm can" game played by viewers into the abyss of hands-on management is the insoluble problem of ambiguity and paradox. Leaving aside teacherly sloth, lethargy and spanner throwing, ambiguity and paradox hold a franchise on making sure the best laid plans of headteachers-as-managers not just gang agley, but are stillborn or run slower and slower until they grind to a halt. They do not spark off creative tension, but instead create a negative synergy, because of their basic irreconcilability with proposed plans.

They grind the gears of every enterprise and especially in education, when overall expectations are often higher than the capability to fulfil them, dissonance is the result. Target setting? Ambiguity and paradox have raised their heads already. "Lowering costs, raising standards"? BT, (whose slogan this is) might be able to, schools can't. And if we don't come to terms with this, then aiming at targets will turn out to be shots in the dark.

My favourite image to describe the educational system is the inverted pyramid. The whole structure teeters and balances on what goes on in primary schools, and if I read these things aright, that has been the main thrust behind every HMI clarion call, guidance and briefing to effective teaching and learning over the past decade. Gestures locally towards recognising this more clearly have been made, like early intervention, but they merely scratch the surface. The facts of the matter are threefold. The real action of effective learning takes place in the classroom; targets will be reached in the classroom; and it takes teachers in the classroom to deliver those targets.

So what happens? The teaching force's morale is sapped by its constant presence as a disposable chip on the bargaining tables of lowering costs and its now strait-jacketed role as a patsy for society's ills. Virtually by definition, teachers need stability to achieve the progression and continuity that their pupils need. Without it, everyone is a loser. My authority sees a need to offload teaching staff, yet this seems to make little impact on the perceived need for target setting.

Just when we seem on the verge of leaving the paralysis by analysis years and entering (this time sensibly) prescription not description ones, ambiguity and paradox take over. Lower costs, raise standards. The only comparison I can think of that covers, inadequately, this kind of situation is the position of the Hebrews in Egypt, when at pharaonic request their work quotas for the manufacture of bricks without straw was upped. But isn't that going back to the pyramids again?

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