Besieged by research

30th September 2005 at 01:00
An open letter to Professor Walter Humes:

Dear Professor Humes

I read your two recent TESS articles on the changing status and identity of Scotland's teaching profession with great interest. I was encouraged to note your statement that the "voices of classroom teachers deserve to be heard". Your view that Scotland's teachers need to commit themselves to a culture of "transformative professionalism" and become open and responsive to educational change is one shared by many members of the teaching profession.

But, as a secondary classroom teacher who, along with other colleagues, has often found himself interrogating "the dominant policy discourses", usually to no avail, I want to indicate some of the reasons why I and many colleagues may currently find it difficult to embrace transformational practices.

Despite the image of empowered teachers so favoured in Scottish Executive reports and statements, the professional culture of teaching remains one in which classroom teachers have enormous responsibility but virtually no power. Learning and teaching may be at the heart of education, but the classroom practitioner is on the periphery of educational decision-making.

The importance that you place on educational research is also relevant to my argument. You are absolutely right in identifying an "anti-intellectualism" among some teachers (and others) when issues of research, policy formulation or professional development rear their heads.

But the cynicism which some teachers feel is not directed at the current drive for research-based practice per se but rather at the failure of much research to make a positive difference to classroom practice. What precisely is the purpose of educational research which endlessly recirculates among faculties of education but never penetrates to the classroom to inform teachers' practice?

Our view of educational research needs to change. We need to develop more inclusive ways of commissioning research in which class teachers regularly help to formulate and frame research jointly with colleagues in the universities. I would like to see learning forums representing teachers in schools and teachers in universities established in all education authorities for this purpose.

There are also more fundamental problems demanding even more urgent solutions. The lamentable levels of staffing and resources in many schools remain at the heart of the matter. This issue simply will not go away.

Large classes, and many of them (my own personal pupil tally this year stands at 330 different pupils each week), help to create a siege culture in which it is difficult for many staff to look beyond the daily routine.

Until class sizes are significantly reduced for all subjects, and teacher numbers are significantly increased, it will be difficult for many to have the energy and commitment necessary to embrace change.

Finally, I was amused to read your description of the Jekyll and Hyde lives of trade union representatives - at once both radical lefties and conservative opponents of change. As a former school rep, I recognised myself immediately.

This "conservatism", however, where it does exist, may be the only means available to teachers to try to retain some control over their professional lives. It would be a tragedy if it were deployed to oppose changes that we need to introduce in our schools, because teachers view these changes as yet another imposition from above.

Yours aye Alan Short Kingswells, Aberdeen

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