Bygones are best foregone;Talkback

12th February 1999 at 00:00
It's pointless being nostalgic -change can be for the better, says Denis Hayes.

Some things in school never seem to change: pupils and teachers; parents thronging the gate; playground chases; teachers talking; pupils concentrating (or not); the smell of school meals, changing rooms, Plasticine and disinfectant .

But new topics now form the heart of staffroom conversations: national curriculum requirements;Jparental demands; balancing budgets; meeting standards; league table positions;JandJ(especially) OFSTED inspections. High morale seems rare, though most teachers remain remarkably cheerful in the face of excessive paperwork.

But it is a mistake to think that everything is worse now than it was. Centrally-imposed edicts may have become obsessive, but some changes have had their positive features. Staff and governors have looked afresh at their objectives, discussions have taken place about policy documents, curriculum entitlement, parental aspirations, special needs provision and appropriate teaching strategies.

If they're encouraged, teachers in their mid to late career will admit to a time when such matters were far less closely monitored. Whereas it is true that recent legislation has often been over-prescriptive, its clumsiness should not hide the benefits.

Many of the previous touchstones for teachers' dismay are now woven into the fabric of schools . . . appraisal, long-term planning,Jrecord-keeping, detailed feedback to parents and so on. It may have been grievous, but should not stop us recognising and maintaining elements which have helped enhance effective practice.

Teachers in the past also had their share of trials and challenges: weak or authoritarian leadership, threadbare curriculum planning, marginalised governors and periods of exceptionally poor pay.

Today's teachers have too much curriculum content to handle . . . yesterday's were offered little guidance about where to begin. Today's teachers are overwhelmed by paperwork . . . yesterday's were fortunate to work in a school where agreed plans and whole staff decisions existed. Today's teachers feel accountable to everyone . . . yesterday's could (if they wanted) close the door and build their cocoon or quietly vegetate.

It is a mistake to sigh wistfully for everything which characterised a bygone age. And if teachers allow themselves to be consumed by the belief that turning the clock back will provide a quick-fix solution, history may yet return to haunt us.

Denis Hayes is a senior lecturer in education at Rolle School of Education, University of Portsmouth. He writes in a personal capacity

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