Distrust eating away at core of education system

30th April 2010 at 01:00

Returning to England after 20 years of teaching in a variety of countries overseas, the one characteristic of education here that strikes me most is the almost universal distrust. With a general election imminent, you would hope politicians of all persuasions would be addressing this state of affairs, as it rots the educational process to its very core. But they are not. Instead, we are heading towards government-union conflict over Sats and the promise that under a Conservative government disillusioned parents will be able to set up their own schools - whatever that really means.

Parents, it seems, distrust schools, teachers distrust parents, and everyone from the government down distrusts teachers. And that's before we even start on contentious professional issues such as the curriculum, testing, league tables, standards and child safety.

While I am sure there are many parents who respect the schools in which their children learn, talk to practising teachers for more than a few minutes and most have stories of pupils and parents who have challenged their authority and professionalism, often abusively or violently. The era of "the school is right" is clearly over. And if parents don't respect or trust their children's teachers, their children will follow suit.

It is not surprising, then, that teachers view meeting parents with a sense of caution that borders on dismayed avoidance. And this, of course, is unhealthy, because the more challenging the child, the closer school and home need to work together. Destroy that trust, and the chances of success are distinctly slimmer.

The current government seems to have done its utmost to foster this general climate of distrust, for that surely is the effect of the institutionalised system of checking that is now Ofsted. "The current demands of Ofsted's focus on safeguarding children and the safer recruitment paper trail are intense," one head wrote to me recently. "In fact, I'm having sleepless nights and long evenings checking policies, which is not usually how I react to anything. By the time I feel anywhere near in control, I don't think any child will be any safer than before I started." I know she speaks for many.

An issue closer to home for me has been the absurdity of some of the child safety regulations, especially for those who have been teaching overseas. A CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check will tell you that a teacher has a clean record in England in the months after their return - but nothing about what they have been doing for the past five years in another country. Did it not occur to whoever designed the system that a good old-fashioned reference from the overseas head might be a better indicator of both performance and "safety"? The lack of trust seems matched only by a lack of common sense.

Of course children need to be safe, and of course schools need to do what they can to ensure staff are not going to harm them, either deliberately or inadvertently, but bureaucratic procedures are creating a climate in which children are encouraged to distrust adults and adults are encouraged to distrust each other. Innocent until proven guilty used to be a benchmark of British justice; now paranoia rules.

What makes me angry about this, ironically, is that children suffer as a result because lands of opportunity have been taken away from them by distrust and its offspring: child safety lunacy. It is a brave head who now encourages staff to take children out on trips, especially residential ones, which were common when I last taught in Devon two decades ago.

The other causes of loss to children are more subtle. One returning teacher said: "Overseas, the focus is on the children. It comes naturally and everything you do has a purpose which directly benefits them. Here, the bureaucracy takes over.

Teachers in England are so frustrated - they want to put up displays and enrich the children's learning and environment but assessment-form filling is huge and takes up so much time that other things are forced to make way. Teacher stress levels are so much higher here than overseas. Everything in English schools seems very adult focused - overseas, it's much more about the children." And the rationale for all this pointless bureaucracy? It is the belief that something written on paper is somehow more worthy of trust.

So is it all bad news? Of course not. But something is amiss when the stakeholders in the educational process seem to have so little trust in each other. And I believe this has changed for the worse since I left England in 1989 on a two-year contract that morphed into 20 years of overseas teaching and headship.

On many issues - standards, pay, class size, even in some areas of the curriculum - it's a case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. But in the core relationships on which schooling largely succeeds or fails, there seems to have been something of a seismic and deplorable shift. An incoming government needs to start urgently the process of restoring the levels of trust which would enable our education system to flourish.

Martin Spice, Headteacher of an international school in Borneo until last year.

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