Celebrate success by ousting doom and gloom brigade

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Forty years ago, Bertolt Brecht observed that the East German government's key strategy in achieving a workers' state was to dissolve the population and elect a new one. I was reminded of this when I watched the recent Panorama programme and saw how Strand junior school in Grimsby had earned the Office for Standards in Education's accolade of success by replacing its original, shop-soiled teachers with newly-qualified ones. Perhaps this should, henceforward, be referred to as the colonic irrigation approach to school improvement.

We were also urged to understand how it was "tests and competition" and the use of "the market to lever up standards" that underlay the school's road to self-improvement. In the matter of winning hearts and minds, the message seemed to be that if you cannot beat, cajole, bribe or wear down the present lot into changing their ways, then eradicate them.

Panorama seemed to have been persuaded that: * there are a lot of incompetent teachers around ("There may be one in your child's school!"); * yet more are being trained to be incompetent, subversive and worse in our universities; * teacher incompetence is fully protected by a pernicious cabal of teacher unions and local education authorities.

Such McCarthyite tosh can be fairly easily exposed as counterfeit by even a cursory examination of l'actualite. It strikes me as odd, for example, that in such a media inquiry the employer of most teachers, the education authority, is not asked to provide basic facts about competency procedures and other means whereby teachers can, and regularly do, leave their posts, invariably with the support of their union.

However, this is not the main point. Why did Panorama decide to pursue such an editorial line? It could equally well have reported on the improvement strategies used by the schools featured in Success Against the Odds where a complete clear-out of yesterday's models was not deemed to be necessary and, instead, existing teachers have been re-energised and re-skilled through good quality professional support and training.

For in the summer, a member of the Panorama production team expressed an active interest in Success Against the Odds and was given a proof copy of the book. At that stage, the case studies were acknowledged as a significant "good news" story by this BBC "flagship" current affairs programme. What or who intervened in the meantime?

Running through the Panorama story - and through the media's recent interest in what makes a good headteacher - is a profoundly pessimistic and determinist view of human beings. In Panorama's "failing school" in Avon, the teachers were portrayed as unimprovable and without hope of redemption. Not even the invisible hand of competition and the market seemed to penetrate their skulls. We were led to believe that the head's leadership had been usurped by that of the local union boss.

Perhaps, then, the head as mythic hero wasn't, in this case, a helpful model? For another theme much loved by some of the media at the moment is the magical alchemy version of headship. By implication, this model denies the capacity of heads (and teachers generally) to learn and grow and improve their own performance. It is a deeply irrational view of human beings as well as being, of course, implicitly anti-educational. It may well be that up to 20 per cent of effective headship is closely associated with a particular set of personal characteristics and unique life histories. However, 80 per cent or more of a head's professional knowledge and skill is almost certainly acquired through structured and replicable experience and learning. Finding and applying successful ways of teaching and learning are, after all, at the heart of what we are about, as applicable to ourselves as to our students.

Speaking of students I was rather taken aback by yet another expression of gloom and doom concerning the imperfection of man (and woman). In this case, Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, contributed to a conference on general and vocational education, by listing some of the key characteristics of today's society. Among these were "individualistic attitudes to morality", "pervasive hedonism", "the weakening of the family", "the disconnection of young people from local and national politics" and "threats to national and cultural diversity". These are important but contentious and uncertain matters; they should not be treated as given truths.

What also needs to be chalked up on the credit side are the numerous ways in which many young people have much to teach their elders. Anti-racism, anti-sexism, a passionate concern for the environment, a huge increase in international exchange and travel and an invariable readiness to raise funds for carefully-chosen good causes deserve some acknowledgement. When Nicholas Tate referred to "a decline in traditional working and middle-class virtues emphasising self-control and delayed gratification", I thought about all those students in FE colleges and universities who exemplify these virtues by pursuing their courses with neither adequate financial support nor any secure prospect of paid employment.

So, before we despair of irritatingly imperfect human beings and try to dissolve them, can we do at least two things?

First, stop blaming everyone else when our preferred version of well-ordered harmony fails to materialise or doesn't appear to command widespread support. Second, can we instead learn to analyse, describe and celebrate the many instances there are of successful learning and endeavour, whether these apply to educational establishments or to people, be they adult professionals, young people or children? I continue to believe that, underlying all disagreements about the most efficacious means of bringing about continuous improvement, there is a shared and implacable belief in the educability of all.

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