Don't let McCrone fall by the wayside

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
There is still a long way to go to bring about the empowerment of the classroom teacher, says Margaret Smith

As we draw nearer to the final phase of the post-McCrone agreement, that fine deal which was supposed to recognise and reward professionalism, most teachers might be pardoned for reflecting on how little has changed. The agreement was intended to empower the classroom teacher, to reward success and to challenge the hierarchy of rank which prevailed, at least in secondary schools, and which placed the classroom teacher firmly at the bottom of the heap.

We were to move from a culture where headteachers would chide a teacher who was not desperate to struggle on to the promotion ladder for "lacking ambition" to one which recognised that what was really needed to improve Scottish education was to make the classroom an attractive career choice and keep the best teachers right there where the real work is done.

We were to move from a climate where "experts", be they professors of education, directors of education, headteachers, self-styled "educational gurus" and inspectors, would pontificate about how teachers should teach, and recognise that the practising teacher probably knew a good deal more about teaching and let her get on with it.

Is this in fact what we see in schools today? I do not think so. Instead, we have a culture where examination results at every level are considered almost the sole criterion on which to judge a school. Schools are graded on the basis of 5-14 test results which are at best of dubious validity.

Education officers and headteachers pore over grades and teachers are called on to be accountable for poor pupil performance.

Management restructuring, which has been justified as somehow an inevitable outcome of the teachers' agreement, has drastically reduced the number of promoted posts within schools. Rather than being less so, many schools are now more hierarchical than ever.

More and more, teachers are told that their performance must be monitored, they must be observed and, if found not to be engaging in "best practice" (whatever that might be at any one time), they will have to address this, perhaps with some judicious "mentoring" by someone chasing a curriculum leader's job.

Most districts now have local inspection teams to supplement or complement the work of Her Majesty's finest. I am not saying necessarily that this is a bad thing. Many schools, after all, degenerated into sink schools while supposedly being monitored by those august persons, and local education officials often seemed oblivious to what was actually happening in schools.

But it constitutes yet another layer of hierarchy between the "enforcers" and the supposedly valued classroom teacher.

Recent HMIE reports in Fife caused considerable disquiet among many staff who felt demoralised and devalued after being subjected to quite scathing comments and hurtful criticism. We are all familiar with the paranoia that the prospect of an inspection can induce, and the stress this involves for an already stressed profession. This, in itself, might be a good reason to question the entire concept of inspection as it now stands.

I am personally familiar with two teachers who became seriously ill following an inspection and who were off with stress-related illness for several months. Both are highly competent, overly conscientious teachers who normally cope perfectly well with the stress and indiscipline which is a commonplace in our schools.

Teachers speak of inspectors being obsessed with "book-keeping issues", and ignoring the bleeding obvious issues like coping with workload and indiscipline. Jargon seems to be running amok: can anyone tell me what "flight pathing", for example, is supposed to mean?

Many inspectors have not taught for years, even decades. What a good idea it would be if they all had to undertake a return stint in a comprehensive school for at least a month every five years or so. Professor Walter Humes of Aberdeen University has been urging teachers, in his articles in The TES Scotland, to be less compliant and more challenging when faced with the pontifications and criticism of educational "experts". These are among the best articles I have read for a long time and they hit home.

McCrone was supposed to empower the ordinary teacher. This can only happen if teachers speak up for themselves and not let themselves be confounded by persons who purport to know it all and who might well be working to an agenda formulated a long way from the classroom.

Margaret Smith is an elected member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland and secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association in Fife. These are her personal views.

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