For better or for worse for teachers?

26th August 2005 at 01:00
In the first of two articles, Walter Humes reflects on the status of those who work in Scotland's schools.

Concern about professional status has been a recurring theme among Scottish teachers for a very long time. It features in professional journals, union conferences and staffroom discussions. However, the regularity with which teachers return to this topic might be taken as evidence of a pervasive feeling that they have not achieved the professional recognition they feel they deserve. It is possible to give both positive and negative readings of the current situation.

In most countries, whether developed or developing, education is high on the political agenda. It consumes a significant proportion of national income in the case of developed countries and is seen as a major focus for aid in relation to developing countries. The political motives for this are often primarily economic, to do with the knowledge and skills required in competitive international markets, but reference is also made to other important functions of education, including personal fulfilment for individuals and the building of social capital for communities.

Given this background, it is reasonable to conclude that the social role of teachers is seen as vitally important and this interpretation is borne out by surveys of public attitudes to teachers. They show up pretty well compared to other occupations with regard to qualities such as trust, despite a general decline in the respect with which most professionals are now regarded. Furthermore, the majority of parents are supportive of the work of teachers, especially in the early stages of schooling.

The value attached to teaching as a public service has been reflected in other ways. In a number of countries there have been important reviews of teaching, dealing with such topics as the recruitment and retention of staff, career opportunities and salaries and conditions of service.

In Scotland, we have had the McCrone report which, among other things, recommended the introduction of improved opportunities for continuing professional development. The chartered teacher programme seeks to reward those teachers who gain their greatest professional satisfaction from working with children and young people, and who want to remain in the classroom rather than seek promotion into a management position.

Yet another positive indicator of the status of the teaching profession is the existence and role of a body such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland. It has, as one of its explicit aims, the enhancement of the teaching profession and deals with a number of matters designed to promote that aim, including the registration of qualified teachers and approval of courses of training. The existence of the GTC can also be seen as reflecting a measure of confidence on the part of government - it is content to allow a degree of self-regulation to teachers, a measure of autonomy in the conduct of their affairs.

Putting all of these points together, it is possible to construct a fairly upbeat account of where the profession stands - high on the political agenda, quite well regarded by the public, subject to reviews that give improved opportunities for professional development and operating within an institutional framework that allows a degree of independence from government.

But it is also possible to construct a less positive account of the social and occupational status of teachers. In the case of the GTC, for example, how far can it claim that it is really representative of the teaching profession as a whole? Only around a third of teachers bother to vote in GTC elections. Furthermore, to what extent can its members separate the union affiliation which, in many cases, has ensured their election, from the wider responsibilities entailed in council membership?

The people who serve on national bodies such as the GTC, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland must, if they are to retain credibility, remain in touch with classroom teachers.

A recent letter from a teacher in the Herald questioned whether they manage to do so: "Why is it that no one listens to teachers? . . . It is interesting that the further a person or group is from the front line, the more arrogant they become in their pronouncements of what is best for the profession . . . Who is saying that all is well in Scottish education? Certainly not staff in schools."

Another set of indicators supportive of a more sceptical reading of the status of the profession relates to familiar issues of pupil indiscipline, teacher stress, low morale, burnout, the desire to take early retirement.

An OECD report published last year, entitled Teaching: Restoring its Class, addressed the question of whether teaching was losing its appeal as a career because of these issues.

Certainly in some countries it appears to be losing its appeal to men and there have been a number of studies examining the effects of the feminisation of the teaching force. The forces of globalisation can also be cited in developing the sceptical interpretation. At an international level, teachers have been affected by the adoption of a market philosophy in many public services, with an emphasis on consumerism, efficiency and output. This has introduced greater accountability, and led to a proliferation of "guidelines" and "standards".

Critics of globalisation say that, taken together, these shifts lead to the deskilling and deprofessionalisation of teachers. Instead of being able to exercise independent professional judgment, teachers are now required to act on instructions from above. In other words, they have become technicians, only concerned with "How?" questions and discouraged from asking "Why?" questions.

The sceptical reading of the status of the teaching profession thus highlights international pressures to conform to centrally determined models, questions the representativeness of the bureaucracies which produce these models and draws attention to the social and cultural context of schools, which often make working conditions extremely challenging.

In responding to these pressures, what strategies might teachers adopt in an attempt to improve their professional standing? Some of the possibilities will be explored next week.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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