Are we there yet?

10th September 2004 at 01:00

The standards framework is hailed by many as an essential roadmap for improving teachers. Michael Duffy looks at a guidebook that questions some of the signposts

On the surface, the national standards framework is solidly reassuring. It identifies seven discrete grades of teaching and leadership ("advanced skills teacher", "subject leader" and so on) and sets out, in a common 10-dimensional format, the expectations required of each. It is tidy and consistent: a way to help teachers improve their teaching, identify their learning needs and enhance their career prospects.

It underpins, too, initial training, professional development courses and performance management: big business, in the increasingly privatised world of public education. It is no surprise that the publisher describes it as the new framework's "definitive guide".

But Howard Green, who edits this compilation, is more cautious. "This book," he writes, "has drawn together experienced practitioners to write about the origins of the national standards, their application in specific contexts, and issues for the future." It is not, apart from some excellent advice to young teachers and their mentors in Maureen Lee's chapter on induction, a book for teachers and headteachers; nor, until its two short, final chapters, is it a critique.

What it does bring out, though, is that the standards may be less coherent (and less stable) than the confident framework metaphor would imply. They were developed at different times and for different purposes: some are statutory, others advisory; some are mandatory, others aspirational. They are also under constant review. They are signposts, says Howard Green, not destinations.

The book is in three parts. Section one (on the national context) spells out the roles of the Teacher Training Agency in drafting the original standards, of Ofsted in providing the evidential base, and of the Hay Group consultancy in researching the characteristics of highly effective teachers. The chapters are contributed by insiders, so the politics of the context - particularly the thrust to NVQ-like "competences" and the huge distrust of "theory" - have to be inferred. The middle section deals with the teaching standards themselves: qualified teacher status as seen by the primary teacher training course at Brighton; induction as seen by the TTA induction team; threshold assessment as seen (in rather excessive detail) from CEA, the contractors for its implementation. There is a lot of history here, and not much analysis. A firmer editorial hand would have been helpful.

But Maureen Lee's chapter on the use and application of advanced skills teacher standards is rather different. So is David Brunton's, on the standards that apply to fast-track entrants to the profession. The first is illustrated with case histories likely to be helpful to potential ASTs and their headteachers as well as to trainers; like Brunton's, it is particularly interesting on the mismatch between these standards and those that apply to other teachers. ASTs and fast-track entrants need cognitive and personal skills as well as narrow competences; these are more difficult to measure, but arguably more important. The framework is more problematic than its proponents might suppose.

This is particularly true with the chapters on standards for school leaders. Janet Tod identifies the complexity (and, occasionally, the contradictions) within the standards for teachers of special needs and for special educational needs co-ordinators. She is concerned that they have as yet had little impact on practice and performance, and about the tension they reflect between the national inclusion agenda and the highly differentiated standards agenda they spring from.

Kit Field and Phil Holden, who specialise in middle management courses for the private sector, write perceptively about standards for subject leaders: a welcome recognition, they point out, that teachers need clear career ladders, that good leadership is distributed and not exclusively headteacher focused, and that it is at the departmental level that pupil performance can most easily be enhanced. Nonetheless, there are counter-indications. Are "standards" here a means of releasing creativity and innovation, or a way of controlling what teachers deliver?

Harry Tomlinson, writing with long experience of headship and management research, describes at first hand the problems that the early versions of the national professional qualification for headship encountered, based as they were largely on the (at that time) five key areas of headship rather than on the skills and attributes that are needed to underpin them. One of his concerns is that the standards here do not recognise the need for heads to carry on learning, and to draw on research in the process.

The leadership programme for serving heads (widely taken up) does reflect this, however. The tension between this approach and that of the NPQH (and between headship training in England and that in, for example, Scotland or the United States) needs resolving. The new national standards, says Tomlinson, will need to encourage other approaches - "for example, the capacity publicly to challenge government priorities".

In a too-brief final section, Emma Westcott from the General Teaching Council and Howard Green himself pick up this challenge. For Westcott, the standards framework is, at best, the first step in an evolving process. It doesn't begin to reflect, she says, the multi-faceted complexity of teaching; it is compromised by the shifting political priorities that dictated it; it is still, essentially, a deficit model. Above all, it is not "professional" in the sense that the book's title should imply. It is something that is dictated to teachers, not born out of their experience and reflection.

For Green, though, the framework is an essential step. The standards are not, he says, and can never be, tablets of stone; they will of necessity need constant review. But he concedes that they are too firmly rooted in outdated policies and assumptions, too redolent of central control. They are at once too specific and too limited: they do not sufficiently reflect the people, process and values-based dimensions of every teacher's role.

But they have been, he insists, "an essential component of the drive for system-wide improvement".

The unasked question - the one that should determine the future of the standards and accountability agenda - is whether there is evidence to support this claim. As yet we don't know. This book, despite its strengths, does not tell us.

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