Editorial: Don't just tell us
It is now accepted wisdom that concern about school standards is a message politicians must put over to parents as voters, but that the views of teachers as voters, let alone purveyors of the system, can safely be brushed aside.
Such is the climate of distrust created by the constant denigration of teachers that it has become a casual common currency. It isn't just the way that both Conservative and Labour leaders harp on about failing teachers and schools. And it isn't just a Mail and Telegraph political counterpoint. The intellectual columnists are in there too. "Britain's public education system is failing on a massive and chronic scale," observed the New Statesman's New Year leader in passing, as part of an inventory of the damage wrought in the Thatcher years. Observer columnist Andrew Adonis recently reached a similar verdict, before suggesting that Tony Blair should become his own education minister in a Labour government.
Polemicists don't give their evidence, so it's hard to tell whether they base their views on bad results, bad teaching, divisive policies, the effects of underfunding, or global league tables. Maybe they aren't too clear themselves, given the level of disinformation and confusion about standards. But what are they really talking about? Is our education system really in as dire a state as some of the rhetoric suggests? And if it is even half as bad, can it ever be turned around without the positive engagement of those same teachers who are now feeling so bad about themselves, their schools, and every politician you could name with the possible exception of Lib Dem Don Foster?
Care must be taken here not to rush to the other extreme and paint too rosy a picture. Everything in the no-longer-secret garden is not lovely. Against the improvement in examination results and staying-on rates, we have to set the intractable number of low achievers and Britain's failure to keep up with the soaraway standards of the Pacific Rim and other European countries. Although many schools and teachers are doing a wonderful job, often against heavy odds, others are still complacent, set their sights too low and would just like to be left alone to carry on that way.
The critical issue here, as Labour leader Tony Blair recognised in his recent Ruskin speech, is that no worthwhile reform can take place without the positive engagement of teachers. But what he may not yet have recognised is that such engagement cannot be achieved through exhortation alone. In fact, the mix of top-down prescription and threats which has brought teacher morale to its present low pitch is counter-productive, provoking defensiveness rather than creative endeavour. The Government made no attempt to take the teachers with it when Kenneth Baker as education secretary turned the system upside down, which certainly contributed to subsequent disasters. Surely that mistake must not be repeated if the education system is to be reborn under a new Government.
One of Labour's own advisers, Birmingham chief education officer Tim Brighouse, has demonstrated throughout his career that engaging teachers in new projects from the start gives a boost to both reform and teacher morale. A similar message came last week from Marit Granheim, of the Norwegian Ministry of Education, who told the North of England conference about new reforms which involve teachers at every stage "because that is the way to inspire creativity and loyalty". Tell anyone what to do, and they just do as they are told.
Teachers here have been conditioned to do as they are told ever since the 1988 Education Act, which has helped get us to the low state of morale hanging over the TESRSL study. It is also evidently stifling creativity. Teachers have appeared reluctant to join any debate about a future curriculum. They scarcely mentioned the subject in our focus groups. They didn't talk much about their own pay either, being much more concerned about the lack of money available to schools, and about their own status and career development.
In essence this is about professionalism, being treated as professionals rather than as the "British standard teacher" described in one group. Partnershi p is an outmoded word in our system, but the profession is never going to be reinvigorated or re-enthused unless teachers are treated as partners in the enterprise. And that means a sea-change in teacher attitudes, as well as those of any future government. Perhaps the place to start is the teachers' own election debate which begins in The TES this week.