Don't bury the profession, praise it

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Cedric Cullingford on the telling difference between training teachers and educating them. Acartoon published several secretaries of state ago depicted two teachers in a staffroom looking at each other in bewilderment. They are referring to a recent speech. "The secretary of state says he admires and cherishes teachers. What would it be like if he didn't?"

Secretaries of state might come and go, but the gap between the rhetoric praising teachers and the actions taken to undermine them steadily widens. The widespread levels of stress in the profession are not only due to increasing workloads or to threats to job security, but to a constant undermining of their position and status. I use the word "profession". A profession can be defined as depending on a body of knowledge over which members have control.

This is true of doctors and lawyers. The national curriculum, however, in whatever manifestation, essentially takes away the responsibility and control over what is taught from those who actually teach it. There was even an attempt by the Government in setting up the "Three Wise Men" report to take control of the ways that teachers taught.

The latest target for undermining the professionalism of teachers lies in the Teacher Training Agency. The word "training" is contentious. It is associated with the mechanistic acquisition of simple skills, it seems to assume that there is a point at which all necessary skills are learned and it creates the image of master and mechanic, when the latter has no responsibility for what is learned. The word "training" also summarises the simplistic view that the Government has taken about teaching for a number of years.

When the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education was set up - perhaps the retention of the idea of education was too much for the politicians - it was the first sign of a centrally-controlled national curriculum as it had laid down exactly what teachers should be taught. CATE even specified the number of hours devoted to particular subjects. It played splendid games about which first-degree subjects were acceptable. Sociology was, of course, anathema, as was psychology.

CATE (which always felt like the music hall mother-in-law - "You ought to do this. You ought to do that.") was only the beginning of the Government's taking control of and downgrading teacher education. After all, CATE retained the word and ethos of education. It has now been abolished in favour of a "training agency". But the signs were already clear. Many will remember with distaste the "licensed" teacher scheme in which almost anyone could be unleashed in the classroom.

The Government seemed eager to divest the profession of the kind of intellectual and academic background that education provides. All the moves about the education of teachers, apart from depriving teachers of real in-service provision, have been to try to remove the expertise of universities. All the talk is of apprentices in schools trying to learn the tricks of the trade from those very same teachers the politicians have spent so much time condemning.

Little attention has been paid to the implications of such school-centred "training", particularly at primary level. How will teachers suddenly acquire profound knowledge in a range of subjects? How will they be able to learn about all the research on the many professional issues?

These are both real questions and rhetorical ones. They are real because teachers will not be able to deliver or pay attention to their pupils, causing lasting damage. They are rhetorical as far as the Department for Education is concerned, for to the agency it doesn't matter, since teaching is supposed to be so simple.

I have always been astonished at the misunderstandings about the role of teachers. It is a far more complex task than being a doctor. Instead of dealing with one patient, the teacher deals with about 30 at the same time. Instead of looking at physical symptoms, the teacher is dealing with the intricacies of the human mind. The skills and insights involved are complex and have more lasting effects. Why is there such a refusal to recognise this?

The teachers in the cartoon were bewildered by what seemed protestations of support from the secretary of state. Teachers should now be bewildered about the attacks on their own education, by the attacks on their professionalism. And they should wonder about the motivation behind these moves. What on earth is to be gained by undermining them?

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield

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