Calling the odds

10th November 1995 at 00:00
Compare and contrast the methods of Panorama and the National Commission on Education. On Monday of this week the BBC TV programme focused on failing schools and in particular the 15,000 bad teachers who Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools believes to be failing our children. Two days later there was a more inspirational event when the National Commission published Success against the Odds, a book about 11 schools flourishing in disadvantaged areas.

What is the public to make of this conflicting evidence? Is everybody looking at the same rich, uneven, tapestry of an education system, and whose ideas are likely to provide the most creative and lasting solutions to the botched or bare patches where the workmanship has been faulty or the wear too heavy? Do we need punishment or persuasion, or the judicious blend of pressure and support the gurus are prescribing?

Panorama went for punishment. A ragbag of bad experiences was spliced together to demonstrate that two sides in the classroom struggle are fighting it out, with parents caught in the middle: on one side the teachers with their unions and trendy trainers, opposed to the national curriculum, testing and inspection; on the other HMCI Chris Woodhead, driving around the country like Superman "in charge," as the commentator put it, "of raising standards and rooting out incompetence".

Stirring words. Of course we are all against incompetence, and it is high time to sort out that stubborn minority of teachers identified again and again by HMI as failing their pupils. The question is how? Mr Woodhead asserts that what we need is a culture change, recognising that incompetent teachers cannot continue. He has elsewhere proposed that Office for Standards in Education teams should report to headteachers on the best and worst teachers discovered on inspections.

It would be a pretty poor head who didn't already know who the worst performers were, a better one who was able to do something constructive about it, short of the last resort. For simply to assert that the incompetent should not continue as teachers ignores the possibility that they, like schools, might be turned round. Not failing but drowning?

The only example of a poor teacher produced by the Panorama programme was an unfortunate probationer struggling to control classes without visible signs of mentoring or support in the classroom, until a head's visit loomed more as a threat than a rescue bid. Like the failing school in the programme where staff rebelled against a new head's reforms, we saw more of the symptoms than possible solutions.

Yet another confused current affairs programme attacking teachers might be dismissed if it were not fronted by the Chief Inspector to whom we should be looking for a more constructive lead. If there are so many bad teachers (and when Sir Keith Joseph raised the issue as Education Secretary more than 10 years ago it was calculated that there was one in every school - rather more than OFSTED's 15,000), shouldn't we first be asking how far appraisal and support might turn some at least into better performers?

It is true that we haven't had much of a professional development structure for teachers and the recent report on appraisal by Alan Evans and Michael Barber found that too often it was not linked into either school or professional development plans. (And of course teachers suspect any appraisal proposal that might be designed to label failures). Last week's ambitious proposals from the Teacher Training Agency outlined a professional development framework that might at last fit the pieces together, but it is probably still some way off.

Meanwhile, however, it should be acknowledged that the looked-for culture change is already a reality in many schools and at many levels. The burgeoning school effectiveness movement, with its emphasis on improvement rather than failure, is now regarded as a key development by ministers, tacitly acknowledging that the right advice and the long haul offer better answers for schools than the quick-fix or marketsolutions.

The only danger in school improvement euphoria is that the term could lose its meaning if reduced too rapidly to formula and check-list. Although teachers and managers have crowded eagerly into conferences to hear the message, there has been a dire shortage of working case studies.

This is where the National Commission on Education steps in with the book that may prove to be the most valuable of all its influential reports. On the one hand a celebration of the success snatched from the jaws of disadvantage in the chosen schools, it also provides analysis of the interwoven factors in each school's own history, pupils, staffing, and management styles that have helped to do the trick. As we report in our news (pages 4 and 5) and features (TES2, pages 2 and 3), each school has found its own salvation, and some have turned round from near disaster, but there are common threads to do with leadership, pupil behaviour, the physical environment, and management of pupils' learning. It wasn't necessarily a question of changing the staff, though a shared vision did matter. The book's editor, Margaret Maden, described an air of irresistible optimism. Panorama please note.

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