Bullied into being better

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Labour's education reforms punish poor performers and reward success. But a system which encourages teachers to lift schools from the bottom up would achieve more, says John Bangs.

I HOPE Michael Barber's Washington speech (TES, July 7) outlining Labour's big picture for education triggers a serious debate. It should do. It will almost certainly be at the heart of Labour's manifesto for the next election.

It would be tempting to respond by asking obvious questions. What about the need to reduce class sizes across the board? Why haven't the successes of comprehensive education been emphasised more?

Firstly, it is important to identify the pluses in the Barber article. There is no denying the Government's achievements, together with teachers and consultants, in delivering the literacy and numeracy strategies. Indeed, it ought to be praised for its commitment to enhancing teachers' professional development. Labour's focus on tackling educational disadvantage, whether or not "Excellence in Cities" represents the best model for doing so, is a common- sense approach through which schools and teachers can respond to the needs of young people from the most deprived backgrounds.

So, why does the vision he outlines generate such unease for many teachers? Perhaps it is worth starting with the literacy and numeracy strategies themselves. Introduced as projects by Gillian Shephard, the literacy and numeracy frameworks were developed through partnerships of volunteer primary schools and locally-appointed consultants in national teams. Teachers contributed to the frameworks as equal partners. The schools involved were part of a community.

Yet, in contrast, the current implementation of the strategies for primary schools was almost derailed by the Government through quasi-statutory imposition. What should have been an entitlement felt like a strait-jacket. Michael Fullan recognised this in his recent review and questioned whether the strategies were sufficiently embedded to lead to the improvements sought by the Government.

This example points to a flaw in the Government's vision. Indeed, Michael Barber himself appears to recognise the problem when he says that "the sustained drive from central Government is perceived as an entirely 'top down' reform with its associated pressures to conform, whereas all evidence suggests that successful reform requires a combination of 'top down' and 'bottom up' change".

Yet in the strategy sketched out by Barber there is no reference to "bottom up" change. Schools are seen as "units of accuntability". Whereas successful schools are rewarded by "celebration events" and beacon status, under-performing schools are rapped over the knuckles with "more prescriptive action plans". Failing schools receive death threats: "early consideration of closure". Autonomy must not be unconditional, Michael Barber says, it "must be earned because performance has been demonstrated".

Indeed, there is little sense of school as part of the local community. The child that has a story to tell about some event at home, or brings in a precious object, opens up possibilities for discussion and learning. Yet teachers complain that there are now fewer of these "magic moments".

The Government, therefore, presents a simple system of reward and punishment rather than an approach which encourages teachers to initiate "bottom-up" change. Why, then, does Michael Barber not focus on the mechanisms which could lead to such a process? Why does he make no reference to school self-evaluation, the great bottom-up reform developed by Professor John MacBeath, of Strathclyde University, and my own union - a reform which is now being adopted by schools nationally and internationally? Why is there no sense of the unscripted, spontaneous moments that take place between children and teachers which can make teaching such fun?

Why is there no reference to the Office for Standards in Education? Has Barber realised that for a quality assurance system to contribute to improvement, it must be owned, understood and respected by those it evaluates? Or must a "world-class" education system depend on an inspection model as punitive as the current arrangements? One hopes for the former but suspects the latter.

So, what is wrong with the Government's programme of reforms? Some are good. Some are bad. Although we are offered the generous admission that "even highly competent governments make mistakes occasionally", the nature of the reforms is not the most important point. The main problem is that enforced change will not work in the long run.

Pressure on and support for teachers without real partnership will lead only to short-term gains, as Fullan has recognised. To quote John MacBeath: "In healthy systems there is sharing and networking of good practice within and amongst schools on a collegial basis ... It is an unhealthy system which relies on the constant routine and tensions of an external body to police its schools". Quite.

John Bangs is assistant secretary responsible for education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers

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