Don't lose sight of the bigger picture

4th July 2003 at 01:00
A COMMON criticism of people working in education is that they are so caught up in the day-to-day pressures that they become somewhat narrow and inward-looking in their professional thinking.

Conversation is dominated by the recurring themes of curriculum, assessment, standards, targets and planning - with occasional digressions into last night's television, sporting triumphs or failures, and plans for recuperative holidays. What is missing, the critics argue, is serious reflection on the ways in which wider social, political and economic movements affect what is happening in education.

My own experience is that, given suitable contexts, educationists welcome the opportunity to think about the bigger picture and to engage in dialogue with other professionals. One of my recent engagements was with a group of staff with management responsibilities in health, education, social work and community development, drawn from a range of departments in a local authority. My remit was to review future prospects for public service professionals and, in particular, to "challenge and provoke".

I mentioned this to a colleague and he remarked: "That's typecasting. You ought to try to extend your repertoire". As you will gather, I try to encourage a supportive atmosphere in the department.

My talk was structured under three broad headings - political challenges, professional challenges and managerial challenges. Under the first, I considered the impact of devolution on links between central and local government in Scotland, and the possible effects of proportional representation on local government elections (especially for relations between councillors and officials).

Professional challenges included the decline of public trust in professionals and the need for inter-professional understanding if "joined-up" approaches to public service provision are to be successful.

And managerial challenges covered my growing scepticism about the discourse of empowerment and ownership, and the importance of leadership by example.

I was delighted with the comments and questions. These indicated a real capacity to think deeply about aims and principles and to see connections between broad social trends and the daily demands of the job.

I was asked about discontinuities between central and local government priorities in the health service; about the place of the arts in education; about post-modernist assaults on traditional conceptions of truth; about the relation between the voluntary sector and the public sector; and about the prospects for genuine inter-professional working in new community schools. Here was a group of people willing and able to see beyond their own immediate circumstances.

How can inter-professional dialogue of this kind be developed further? The present form of training for most professions does not do enough to encourage openness to other perspectives. There is too much emphasis on distinctiveness and specialist expertise. More attention needs to be given to questions common to all public service professionals: rights and responsibilities; democracy and social justice; autonomy and accountability; continuing professional development. There is a strong case for part of the training programmes of teachers, social workers, health service personnel and community workers to take place together.

This would offer an opportunity to explore common (mis)perceptions and (mis)understandings with a view to providing a better quality of service to clients. As part of this, those wider questions to do with the dominant social, political and economic values of society, and how these affect practice, would have to be addressed.

There would, of course, be resistance from vested interests and those fearful of change. But the world outside education is not standing still.

We can't afford to do so either.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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