Barbecued on a griddle from S 'n Q;Opinion

5th February 1999 at 00:00
THEOLOGIANS in jovial mood sometimes suggest that a thick skin may be one of the ultimate gifts of the Holy Spirit. My carapace has thickened over the years, but I am still smouldering a little after my profession was mauled by both the Rottweiler and the Dobermann press. In the favourite parlance of the former, we got given a good kicking. Favourite parlance, because it was doing the kicking, while the other hit us with elegantly withering word and world-weary shake of the head.

Another analogy might be the baseball bat and the stiletto. Whichever appeals. However you look at it, teachers, what they do and how they do it, have been getting a bad press recently.

What sticks in my craw has been the consistent negativism of the language the media used to describe to the general public the results of HMI's school inspections: Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1995-1998. I feel deep concern over the broad-brush impact of such negativism on primary schools. Secondaries that thought that their widespread cavalier indifference to national testing, to plummeting interest in S1 and S2, and worst of all to their own dilatoriness in putting 5-14 in place (only two years' input for them) might go unnoticed by HMI are up a gum tree. What went unnoticed, deliberately or not by the national press, were the efforts that primaries have made to improve standards. Unnoticed, too, were any signs of recognition that this has been happening.

Think back over the vocabulary of nay-saying that surfaced. Its authors must have dredged through their thesauri with a fine toothcombe - appropriate instrument - to find the right words. Ranging from "failings" to "shame" and "shocking", from "incompetent" to "rotten", from "inadequate" to "dismal", it went from "crisis" through to "calamity".

More cerebral criticism dripped its vitriol on indicators of mediocrity and on questioning our place on the educational international stage. The overall impression given to the fair-minded reader was, and remains that we are bowling along to hell in an educational handcart and the teachers don't know how to, or just can't, apply the brakes.

Not guilty, m'lud. The acid pens had their Warhol times at teachers' expense, and, worse, had a head start mostly because they had the information before teachers got it, and before any whoa calls could be made. I believe there is an axiom in press circles to the effect that there is nothing deader than yesterday's news. In some quarters they even wrap chips in it.

Teacher comment? When it was not weak, it was spluttery, and tardy with it. By the time we had cobbled together our comments, the media were off elsewhere, leaving the cries of unfair hanging in the wind, and leaving teachers hanging out to dry. Leaving, too, no chance for teachers to make the perfectly valid point, known to be such by HMI, that education is not the kind of supertanker that can do a three-point turn on a safety pin.

Don't get me wrong. In the matter of standards and quality we do not come out of the washing machine whiter than white. Most of HMI's illumination of the dark underside of key strengths in primary schools (dare we use weaknesses?) has been in the public domain not for three years but for six.

Yes, improvements have gone on, ignored by the media, but the field that was almost totally untitled, and which must be a priority for every teacher to consider as a matter of urgency, is serious analysis of why our rate of progress is not faster.

Are we over-politicised? Under-resourced? Over-unionised? Over-legalised? Under-competitive? Under-trained? Working for equality rather than achievement? S 'n Q raises these questions. We have to answer them.

Meanwhile back at the press tent my carapace has thinned so much almost to revert regrettably to a playground reaction. Sticks and stones . . .

But no. What we must face is that while all communication consists of a sender, a receiver and a relationship between the two, the relationship between media and teachers seems to be coming up empty. There's a pressing need for us to meet with media minds, not with media head-butts.

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