Do we want a return to Hard Times?

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Once upon a time, a teacher's classroom was his castle. These days, if the head isn't lurking with a clipboard, a CCTV camera panning silently round the room, or the one-way observation suite in use, then there is probably a litigious teenager filming with a mobile phone.

It is no wonder teachers feel anxious and even bullied by this trend, as the Easter conference motions attest.

Teachers, traditionally isolated, have welcomed recent initiatives to watch each other for professional development. Equally, it is not unreasonable for the boss to observe lessons from time to time. The problem comes when those visits happen so often or in such a way that they undermine confidence, create a vicious cycle and make staff perform in a way that appears to confirm the head's suspicions about their competence.

So teachers and pupils reading chief inspector Maurice Smith's warning that schools should not be "fun palaces" will give a hollow laugh. Violent pupils, management bullies and initiative-itis are among teachers' worries for discussion next week. Not much fun there.

Children and their parents, says Mr Smith, should expect hard work, not fun. If children can find fun in literacy hours, tests and now compulsory phonics for infants, perhaps we should say good luck to them.

He is right to emphasise that pupils and parents cannot expect success on a plate, but there are limits. We are in danger of inflicting our Gradgrindian adult long-hours culture on our young. We already make them start school earlier than their European peers, to no discernible academic advantage.

Adults have some choice about where and how they work. Children are banged up in an institution from the age of four (and increasingly much earlier), and then that is it, often for the rest of their lives.

Everyone works better if they enjoy what they do. We should respect the desire of our younger pupils to spend time making sandcastles and the desire of good teachers to have their classrooms treated once more as their castle, rather than a petri dish.

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