Culture change puts enemy within schools

21st September 2001 at 01:00
At last, the official desire to mollify teachers is palpable. Ministers assure us that the burdens of bureaucracy and paperwork will be lifted.

Suddenly, the media is silent about teachers' failings. There are signs that testing will be reduced. And Ofsted proposes to drop individual grading of teachers and introduce a new system whereby a school inspection becomes a kind of love-in.

So are we on the brink of a new era of sweetness and light for teachers? I fear not. Paperwork will be as burdensome as ever, testing will go from strength to strength, teacher assessment will be undiminished. And it's thanks to a dramatic culture change achieved by ministers (Conservative and Labour), inspectors and officials over the past decade.

To understand the scale of that change, we should go back to when Charles Handy, one of those management gurus who succeed in creating a quasi-religious air about themselves, first visited a school some 15 years ago. Where, he demanded to know, was the management? Other organisations were stuffed full of managers, shuffling paper in rows of offices. But not schools. Professor Handy saw it as a terrible shortcoming.

If he were now to visit a school, he would be cheered. In some, what with learning assistants, mentors, special needs co-ordinators and various deputising and assisting heads, teachers who actually take classes day after day are in a minority. A whole generation has moved upwards through the school system in the belief that a well-turned policy (preferably on about 20 pages of A4) will cure everything from mass illiteracy and ignorance of the date of the Battle of Waterloo to a tendency to throw chairs at teachers and cast doubt on their parentage. Are children trying to strangle each other in the playground? Struggling with simple addition? Put a solution down on paper.

Schools are now full of senior teachers who have achieved promotion on the strength of their capacity to produce plausible paperwork. Their job descriptions often include an obligation to assess colleagues. Thousands of heads now feel that they have lost control unless teachers show them daily lesson plans and children take termly tests. No wonder Ofsted and the Department for Education are ready to relax.

Schools have internalised the control culture. They can create their own bureaucracy, test papers and assessment forms without any further intervention from external agencies. Many recent entrants will not have a clue how to develop their own curriculum ideas or learning materials; if they were ever trained to do such things, their skills will have withered for lack of practice.

Something similar happened in the 1960s. The first Black Paper, opening the ideological challenge to the "trendies", was published before the 1960s were out, and that Margaret Thatcher was already on the warpath against child-centred education in the early 1970s. But so deeply ingrained was the culture that many heads, who had achieved eminence on the back of Plowden-style ideals, were tearing up exercise books and casting lined paper into rubbish bins well into the 1990s.

So now, teachers no longer need to worry about the stern-faced man or woman from Ofsted or about the latest impenetrable missive from Whitehall. The inspector is there, waiting to pounce, just down the corridor, and following close behind, is another colleague, with a fat ring-bound folder and 25 closely-typed pages of PE policy.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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