Democracy, not authoritarianism, underpins success

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Chris Woodhead is reported to have suggested "that his own inspectors had become contaminated by educational orthodoxy", and been "too soft on bad teachers" (TES, February 7).

Indeed, from the classroom upwards there is a widespread difficulty of giving negative feedback. But this is only "soft" on the surface. Paradoxically, it is a consequence of a prevailing authoritarian culture that sees negative feedback as a judgmental "writing-off" of innate ability rather than a constructive basis for future improvement. Hence the fear both of giving and receiving such feedback.

The underlying "orthodoxy" then is not, as Mr Woodhead believes, born of the so-called child-centred pedagogy of the trendy, permissive 1960s, but is a legacy of the Victorian whole-class tradition. This is characterised by hierarchical relationships based on disrespect, distrust, lack of listening, secrecy, judgmental intolerance, etc.

These are deep-rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture and generally have not been shaken off despite the semblance of change in schools. They contrast with an opposing set of democratic skills and attitudes - respect, trust, listening, openness, fairness, etc - many of which underpin the successes of Asian whole-class teaching. Significantly, heads considered successful by the inspectorate illustrate certain features of a democratic approach with staff and students.

Mr Woodhead calls for consistency in inspection, effective leadership, improved quality of teaching and a more "questioning culture" in schools. All these depend upon changing from a hierarchical to a democratic culture. We will need to recognise the importance of democratic relationships and skills, and their role in effective leadership, teaching and learning, and amongst other things, model structured participatory methods to develop these in headteacher, teacher, and inspector training.

SUE JONES

3 Littledown Road Charlton Kings Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

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