Battery-hen teachers must overcome fears of Coalition's free-range farmyards and seize creative freedoms

29th October 2010 at 01:00

Years ago we bought a country cottage and decided to keep chickens. Long-standing liberal townies, we fancied getting ex-battery hens. We had visions of these newly liberated creatures scratching ecstatically around our large garden and repaying us in their gratitude with glorious, golden-yolked eggs.

Our neighbour, a real countryman, swiftly put us right. All rescued fowls ever do, he said, is crouch in a miserable huddle, intimidated by open spaces and pining for the safe confinement of their tiny cage. (In truth he used more robustly agricultural terms.) We bought bantams instead, but the idyll did not last, because we couldn't stand the cockerel crowing at four in the morning.

Some reactions to the Coalition's plan to free up schools, slash bureaucracy and ignite a bonfire of the quangos remind me of those battery hens. Released from the numbing constriction of government prescription and regulation, we teachers seem to be finding our new free-range farmyard both draughty and threatening.

I am not blaming anyone for this learned behaviour - anyone except the last two governments, that is. The national curriculum was brought in more than 20 years ago to nail schools down: Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker trusted neither schools nor teachers. Testing and inspection followed because Baker's civil servants couldn't conceive of creating regulations without checking they were being followed. So the monster was created.

New Labour took it further - so far, indeed, that by 2010 no school or college, state or independent, was trusted by government to do anything important - teaching, protecting children - without producing mountains of paperwork to prove that they were doing it.

Teachers have thus been harried and pressured for two decades. Small wonder, then, that the profession has developed a victim mentality. Things have been done to us or demanded of us unremittingly: moreover, those targets, benchmarks and myriad rules have changed constantly. Until this year's election there had been six education secretaries and eight schools ministers in 10 years - so schools had to deal with at least six new sets of initiatives and countless additional knee-jerk reactions to events.

Over time, being told what to do by government became a habit. And local authority schools could always look to the LA for back-up or reassurance as to what was required: after all, every new government initiative came with countless PowerPoint presentations "delivered" worthily and with spectacular dullness ... by the person who last visited the school to outline the previous initiative. Thus the straitjacket became almost a form of support: there was comfort in that tight constriction. We knew where we were.

A couple of years ago, finally, the first cracks appeared in the monolith: even the great centralist Ed Balls agreed to end key stage 3 Sats. We had all moaned about the exams, which got in the way of useful learning and progress at age 14. But instead of rejoicing, there was a surprising response. Sections of the profession were at a loss: "How will we know what to teach now?"

Those of us old enough to have taught in the 1980s recall an era when adventurous schools designed their own curricula and even got their homemade syllabuses approved by examining bodies. Younger teachers have been brought up instead on a monotonous diet of delivery (that word again) of Ofsted-style tripartite lessons with Learning Objectives (drawn from the detailed Programme of Study and departmental Scheme of Work) displayed at all times.

The recent ending of the self-evaluation form (SEF) - or, at least, of the requirement that schools use it - brought similar expressions of alarm. We knew where we were with that, too, and it gave Ofsted a framework to work from. Driven to distraction by intrusive, frequently hostile inspection, we sought the relative safety of a pre-designed framework to keep inspectors on-piste. Similarly we got used to the General Teaching Council being the profession's policeman, carrying out disciplinary procedures. Drowning under the sheer volume of safeguarding regulations, we found it convenient to have a body to ban the rotten apples from our barrel.

Prescription and regulation saved us doing a number of awkward jobs, then, but they made us dependent. This is Stockholm syndrome, where hostages develop an emotional bond with their captors. The dependency culture in schools is insidious: it grows without realising it, and becomes hard to break out of. That is where we are now. We have been demanding freedoms, insisting that big government back off, but when the tide turns and leaves that empty ground in front of us, we feel lost.

It is scary out there, for sure. But how exciting that scariness can be, if schools and teachers free themselves to apply their creativity and inspiration as they judge best. Those qualities are still there, in a workforce that is better than it has ever been, but buried and, like hidden treasure, ready to be brought back up into the light. We need to rediscover the confidence to devise our own curricula; to make our own decisions about those whom we employ or sack; and to press government to put Ofsted back in its box, inspecting only what is needful and stopping inspectors pursuing idiosyncratic personal agendas.

If politicians keep their word, increase the freedoms they have promised to schools and resist the temptation to tell us - as they are currently threatening to - precisely what should be taught in history or English lessons, that empty ground will only grow. Will that new horizon prove exciting virgin territory, ripe for exploration and exploitation, or a hostile wasteland full of snares and pitfalls? Will we stride out boldly and seize the opportunities? Or huddle together like battery hens?

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).

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