Cut-throat attitude is out of place with us

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Hard indicators and measurable targets aside, our work is unlike other businesses.

Teachers know that working for the public sector and for young people's futures will never lead to a mention in the business news pages.

Our work also carries the distinction from profit-making businesses of striving for excellence on behalf of our pupils without having to out slog competitors.

It also, thankfully, preserves us from the mentality that to survive and thrive you must criticise, undermine and insult others in your realm of industry.

With SQA exams now underway, teachers will be focusing on their own pupils but have empathy for young people throughout the land over the next few weeks, as well as appreciating the craft and expertise colleagues have shown in preparing them for this time.

My focus, however, comes from recent readings of Chris Woodhead's work and ideas.

I think it is important to listen to the wisdom of experienced educators.

One of the greatest influences on how I've developed as a headteacher is Tim Brighouse, not only his writings - which I recommend to anyone who cares for young people and is responsible for managing their progress - but also hearing him speak on education and its challenges. Professor Brighouse impresses me on many fronts but specifically in two: first, he has an undeniable love of young people, and second, he has a great belief in the excellence of teachers.

Professor Woodhead's background is well known and his opinions are well received in some quarters, though he fails to inspire me. But as one who would claim to be an expert in education, he would do well to reflect on the damage that criticism can do, particularly when directed at the vulnerable and delivered in a scattergun approach, wounding not only the apparent target but also the innocents who stand in the way. He has recently been swiping at the Scottish Executive and at Scottish teachers for failing our children.

Having established a company that is expanding private education in England, he is keen to enlarge it. Cognita is eyeing the stock market and acquiring more schools will mean increased profit, more revenue from investment and bigger profits for the directors and shareholders. It's all acceptable, fair business practice.

How he hopes to break into the northern market is what makes me uneasy. By criticising the Executive, current thinking about learning, the work of teachers and referring to "failing schools", he could be seen as performing a cynical business trick: undermine the competition - in this case, state education - with wide-ranging insults and insinuations and open a market for the new product.

Living and working in the west of Scotland, my consolation is that his brand of learning is apparently going to be directed to middle-class parents in Edinburgh. If Professor Woodhead is to be believed, they are crying out for just such a commodity. To benefit from a Cognita School all parents will need is the annual fee. He aims, then, for a well-heeled market, but he damages all of the state system with his aim.

Irrespective of background, our SQA pupils face testing times over these next weeks. They carry into the exam hall the input from countless people who care. Their greatest educators, their parents, have supported them. The work of playgroup staff, early years centres and nursery schools started the formal process years ago. The baton was then grasped by primary colleagues and taken up at secondary level by subject specialists and other key staff.

State education mercifully has no means test. Young people reap rewards for their own efforts and in August will give huge satisfaction to countless teachers who have supported and inspired them over their learning years.

Parental bank balances have not stood in their way.

In the past, Professor Woodhead often sought publicity and took the resultant criticism his views engendered. He rationalised it thus: "Much of the criticism was from people I didn't respect, so it didn't bother me."

Scottish state education, I trust, is strong enough to treat his musings with similar disdain.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High in Glasgow Comment to

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