Breeding the 15,000

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Headline writers have relished the Chief Inspector's edict that l5,000 teachers deserve to be sacked. The statement presumably derives from the Office for Standards in Education accounting for l5,000 "bad" lessons. This is not the same thing at all, but such use of statistics is not unprecedented. The figure, however, raises the question of what is meant by "bad".

There is an important distinction between pronouncements made through OFSTED, and the fact acknowledged by all professionals that there are some teachers who should be replaced. But there is also a link between the two kinds of judgment, a link that could well be closer over the next few years.

Given the enormous complexity of teaching, drawing on acute sensitivity as well as knowledge, the ability to understand relationships as well as being able to communicate, it is not surprising that standards vary. Whilst personalities and approaches differ, the characteristics of good teachers are well understood. This is also true of poor teachers: inconsistency, ignorance, insensitivity and indifference.

But there is one characteristic of the "below average" teacher which is encouraged by OFSTED. This can best be described as "denial".

Denial takes many forms. For instance, a headteacher tells you the school has no bullying problem but you discover that the opposite is the case. The first sign of bullying is the refusal even to acknowledge it. It is those schools who are sensitive to the issues of personal relationships who have the most thought-out behaviour policies.

The same ability to be open to suggestions, accept there are difficulties, to be self-critical are important elements in a good teacher. But who really dares to admit that there might be weaknesses if one is to be punished for it? The headteacher who denies problems is putting on a front to protect the school. He or she is driven by the market to advertise only what is best and to ignore or cover up the real and difficult needs of children.

When teachers are inspected their natural reaction is defensiveness. This was always a problem with individual teachers who assume that everything is satisfactory. As any head knows the most difficult of people to deal with are those who cannot understand what you are talking about, who have no professional insight. The good teachers are thoughtful and adept at self-evaluation. The poor ones cannot change because they never scrutinise their own performance.

To teach well is very complex; to teach badly is relatively easy. When teachers are uncertain or insecure they are concerned only to survive, to keep routines going. When they are under stress, as in an OFSTED inspection, they become insecure. Teachers are learning to play safe, lest they are caught out.

When teacher appraisal was first introduced in the United States teachers quickly learned to lower their targets so that they would not fail them. It is rather like the performance indicators applied to the various railways. When the Citizens' Charter brought in the notion that passengers would be entitled to have money paid to them if the trains were late, there was one immediate consequence. The timetables were revised with slower times.

The worry is that many of the measures designed to improve standards in teaching are having the opposite effect. The defensiveness of teachers, the denial of their professional judgments, and the negative effects of assessment are all likely to make matters worse. The Chief Inspector announces there are 15,000 "bad" teachers. Are we supposed to say "well done; carry on as you are and you'll soon make it at least 20,000?" What kind of performance indicator is that?

* Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield

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