Don't stop now

9th January 1998 at 00:00
The Government's aim in honouring Britain's teachers is twofold: to increase the prestige of the profession in the eyes of the public, and to give teachers themselves more pride in the job they do - allied to a confidence that their real value is recognised.

But just as a hypnotist can make ordinary people believe extraordinary things for a few hours, the effects are likely to be short-lived. Dangling a few gleaming New Year honours before the British public is unlikely to mesmerise them into believing that teaching really is a glamorous profession. Age-old prejudices will have go if that happy day is ever to dawn.

It is nearly 140 years since a frustrated teacher told the Newcastle Commission on the state of public education: "Trained teachers do not dislike their work ... it is honourable, intellectual and benevolent, but society has not yet learned how to value them #201; The man who labours for the elevation of his fellow #201; is a mere social nonentity #201; The parson takes the same notice of him as he does of the parish beadle."

Things have improved since then. (No village schoolmaster has to double as the parish gravedigger these days.) But Tony Blair's decision to give an educational focus to his first New Year Honours list is, without doubt, part of the political push to improve the image of teachers, so that recruitment targets can be met. Without an increased supply of teachers, the Government risks being unable to honour its pledge to raise standards.

That may sound unduly cynical - but then it is easy to view the British honours system with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Although Mr Blair clearly does have a high regard for teachers, we also know that prime ministers and monarchs have traditionally used the honours system to avoid dipping into their pockets. Furthermore, too many past New Year lists have lacked honour - because they have been stuffed with political cronies, toadies and time-servers.

Some individuals have always taken delight in rejecting gongs. HG Wells, the socialist educationist RH Tawney and the cantankerous Bernard Shaw all said "no thank you"; even Rudyard Kipling, the Empire's poet, never accepted one. Indeed, awarding people membership of the British "Empire" appears increasingly anachronistic in 1998, when our foreign dependenci es have shrunk to the size of full-stops on the world map.

Nevertheless, as Gerald Haigh points out in our new Friday magazine (page 4), the rare burst of "naming and acclaiming" that the honours list has prompted is a welcome break from "naming and shaming". The number of honours for teachers may not have been such a radical departure from precedent as the advance publicity suggested; but the award of a knighthood and a damehood to two serving headteachers is significant because these honours do have real kudos.

So what real benefit will the profession derive from the ennoblement of Tamsyn Imison, Geoffrey Hampton and the former secondary head Patricia Collarbone? A little more status in the world's eyes and a smidgeon more self-belief? Probably, but any such effect is likely to be short-lived. If the Government really wants to bolster the image of teaching it must go on awarding knighthoods and damehoods year after year, to prove that education is no passing political fancy. A few top honours for primary headswould not go amiss.

But the Government must do much else besides. We need more high-profile propaganda campaigns like the cinema advertisements that have triggered extra enquiries from people considering a teaching career. These publicity drives must not, however, focus exclusively on how worthwhile teaching is - even though this is true. Young people also need to be persuaded that teaching offers attractive career opportunities, a decent salary, some perks other than free school meals, and even the chance to travel and expand the mind, thanks to scholarships and sabbaticals. It doesn't at present, of course, but that is the sort of thing required to lift teaching onto a par with other professions in the public mind.

So: throw a few more bouquets publicly towards the teachers (as you can see in Friday magazine, The TES intends to start a new trend in this respect). And keep brickbats to a minimum. Currently, the general political tone is one of pressure and criticism, relieved by targeted but infrequent rewards for specific individuals. What we need to aim for is the reverse: focused and appropriate censure where it is required, within a climate of up-beat support and recognition for the unsung heroes of the classroom.

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