Dear Ted

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

Ted says

Aren't teachers allowed to think for themselves nowadays? The culture of government prescription and state compulsion has exerted a stranglehold on schools during the past few years and it's time it ended. It is not only demeaning to professional people, but it is bunk - snake oil peddled as a miracle cure. Literacy hours have to contain four bits, numeracy hours three. Why?

These arbitrary formulations are based on no research evidence at all. It is scandalous that they were ever peddled in the first place.

Unfortunately, some heads have used the opportunity afforded by prescription to beat teachers around the ears and exercise tight control over what they do.

Contrary to what you have been told, you do not have to follow teaching strategies to the letter or risk being deemed unsatisfactory. They are advisory, not statutory. Ministers have always protested that it was overreaction by heads that made strategies look so prescriptive. But they should still take their share of the blame; they started it all.

The more secure Ofsted inspectors and heads are relaxed about letting teachers exercise professional judgment. It is the weedy ones who are so scared they insist on compliance to the letter. You and your colleagues should assert your professional rights, stand up for what you believe in, and make your points in a civilised discussion.

If your school is running well, you have nothing to fear, other than a narrow-minded, knuckleheaded team of inspectors - and they are now in a minority, as Ofsted begins to change, we hope for the better.

Let's start a revolution against the compliance culture that has throttled initiative and tried to turn teachers into Daleks. Primary teachers are doing projects again. Special needs teachers, in particular, must be inspired, not cowed, if their children are to benefit. The nationwide clank of thousands of teachers finally shaking off their fetters should be deafening.

You say

Prepare a new scheme of work

All teachers know that children with moderate learning difficulties need more time, more individual attention and more resources to complete successfully a course at key stage 3, or any other stage. Unfortunately, some administrators still believe teachers can perform miracles.

The best way round this problem is for the teacher to prepare a scheme of work that reflects the needs of this particular group of students, almost certainly involving the teacher in more contact time. The teacher can then approach the head with this scheme and ask his or her "advice" on salient points, making sure he or she notices the extra time investment offered. I would be surprised if a positive and professional approach were ignored.

Tony Ireland, Prestwich

One size does not fit all

In our school, management does not listen to well-reasoned arguments about the need to vary structures, approaches and content according to the established educational needs of specific groups and individuals, and to moment-to-moment shifts in interest and motivation.

Teaching and learning are (or should be) parts of an interactive process.

Observing and building on pupils' responses in the classroom is an essential skill. When pupils are enjoying and learning from a particular activity, it is frustrating and damaging to cut it off because we have to move on to the next segment in the lesson structure.

It is pointless and wasteful to carry out a "whole-class activity" to teach a specific skill that is inappropriate for some members of the class, just because the guidance says "whole-class activity, in this aspect of the subject, for this amount of time, in this slot". Experienced teachers should not be forced to abandon their own judgment and teach according to a "one-size-fits-all" plan.

Anonymous, London N2

Do what you think is best for them

The late James Cameron, my favourite journalist, said that if he ever had to give up being subjective as a journalist, he'd take up a more honourable profession, like bank robbery. I'd like to believe the same is true of headteachers, and that the moment I am consumed with the desire - and the need - to conform, I shall throw away the chalk and walk out of the door.

What makes teaching worthwhile? It's the opportunity to be with young minds as they grow and learn. I don't care if it's QCA, DfES, MLD, or any other set of initials; our task is not to follow a government agenda but to enable each child to discover the joy of learning and to use it as a key skill for life.

My suggestion is to pickle the headteacher, place him in a hermetically sealed jar at the back of a cupboard with the stored past key stage 3 test papers. Then go out and do what you joined the profession for: to be a teacher, and recognise that your greatest gift is that you have a mind, a soul and the ability to use your electrical cortex rather than following the bland edicts of an authority which believes that by defining it, you can achieve it.

Secondary head, by email


"I am a teaching assistant, good at supporting my groups, thinking ahead, supplementing and complementing. I think TAs are poorly treated, but I don't want to be pressured into becoming a teacher. What should be my next move?"

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