Editorial: Half a year onward

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Six months ago, on a brilliant May morning, Britain awoke, with high hopes, to a new political era. But today, as we plunge down into the winter months, it is hard to escape a sense of confusion and even disappointment. Is this justified? Could any Government meet the pent-up expectations of 18 years - especially in education?

In fact, the pace of change over the past six months has been remarkable. Nursery vouchers and the assisted places scheme were scrapped at once. July's White Paper set out a coherent plan for raising standards in schools, in which many different policies are intended to click into place over the next five years - making (it is to be hoped) a real overall impact on the lives and achievements of thousands of schoolchildren. A far-reaching literacy strategy has been put in place, a General Teaching Council is planned, and a Green Paper on special educational needs is out for consultation. A dozen task forces and advisory groups have been convened - including one to tackle excess bureaucracy. ("Get rid of OFSTED and the SATs, and that should do it," muttered one disgruntled head.)

This is not to say, of course, that all has gone swimmingly. The introduction of fees for university students was comprehensively bungled, and the new structure for schools has raised hackles in all directions - including those of the Bishops, who have unexpectedly become key players in the negotiations. Reducing class sizes at key stage 1 may not benefit those who need it most. Education Action Zones may sound good but are still untried.

One of the most exciting developments is the recognition that many aspects of life not directly related to matters educational have a bearing on pupils' achievement. The White Paper emphasises the importance of nutrition and school meals. Jack Straw's policies at the Home Office reflect the expectation that parents are responsible for socialising their children. Homework clubs and after-school schemes are springing up everywhere.

If teachers are looking for a recognition that they cannot solve society's problems all on their own - then here it is.

Yet, the teachers are holding back. At a time when Britain is full of creativity and excitement, they - judging from surveys carried out by their unions - have been left behind. Still struggling away at the chalkface, complaining of overwork and low morale, many are declining to throw their weight behind the Government's plans. But what precisely are they waiting for? What could inspire them and turn them round?

Every country's education system, of course, is rooted in its national culture. In trying to revolutionise British schools, the Government is looking for a cultural change. Historically, we have not expected enough of our children. Now we must - not only in order to compete with other countries but to offer to all young people the chance to acquire the skills, knowledge and understanding they need for a successful and satisfying life.

In the past, when two-thirds of the population was defined as working class and there were plenty of unskilled jobs, it seemed more acceptable that many young people left school early.

Educational achievement for working-class people was sometimes viewed with ambivalence by both sides of the class divide. Those at the top of the ladder disliked the idea of large numbers climbing up to join them. Indeed, Britain is probably the only country where the word "aspirant" often has a negative connotation. At the same time, some working-class parents were not sure that they wanted their children educated up into the middle class - maybe to become toffee-nosed snobs.

This frozen status quo is changing fast. The decline of Britain's traditional industries has led to a parallel fall in the size of the working class, and ethnic minorities have loosened up the old-fashioned class divide. The past five years have seen big rises in the staying-on rate, and a rocketing demand for higher education.

Britain is becoming a middle-class nation. Most of our sweat shops are now in the Far East. We make our living through middle-class skills: information-handling; computing; research; high-tech production; financial services; and a burgeoning creative sector, including music, fashion and media-related products. Young people who have nothing to offer industries like these risk being consigned to an underclass of unemployables.

Tony Blair, David Blunkett and the rest recognise this new culture, and are trying to shift our institutions accordingly. The project of "modernising" Britain applies as much to education as to anything else. But nowhere is it more difficult, because teachers embody and live by a set of values which question many of the assumptions of New Labour. For many, these values are a crucial element in their personal and professional identities.

So, when it comes to education policy, the Government's big problem is the teachers - and the teachers' big problem is the Government. How can this gap be bridged?

The pat answer is that higher pay and status would do the trick - but the first is impossible, given current constraints, and the second is a deeply-rooted issue which goes back decades. The real problem is that teachers lack recognition. Their difficulties with overwork and low morale are dismissed as whingeing, and public teacher-bashing is still de rigueur if ministers are to retain their image as tough guys committed to high standards. And, crucially, no one takes teachers' values seriously: their commitment to preserving children's confidence by praising rather than criticising their efforts; their passionate belief in inclusivity rather than selection; their reluctance to focus on utilitarian skills and so on.

Now, it may be that these values are outdated in an increasingly competitive world. They do not always embody appropriate expectations, and as a result many children have not been adequately prepared for adult life.But relinquishing them is painful - and this is simply not recognised by those who would have teachers change.

Psychologically, this process is immensely complex, and too often marked by a lack of imaginatio n and self-knowledge in all concerned. Almost every adult has had an uncomfortab le encounter with a teacher at a time when he or she was small and powerless. Injustice or humiliation can rankle for years. The country, it seems, is crawling with successful and influential people who were once told by a teacher that they would never amount to much, and have never forgiven them.

As a result, many are reluctant to recognise that teachers themselves are often very exposed psychologically, especially in inner-city schools where classes can be challenging. Feeling vulnerable, teachers yearn for professional autonomy and resent "diktats from above", yet many also crave the assurance that they are doing the right thing. Hence their sometimes extreme anxiety concerning OFSTED visitations.

If the teaching profession is whole-heartedly to endorse the Government's plans, the question of profession al identity must be taken seriously. Change is never easy, but it is a clich of good management in any sphere that constantly berating people is not the best way to get them to raise their game. Instead, oddly enough, they tend to leave.

Teachers need to be both wooed and inspired. They should be shown how to dovetail the values they hold dear with more effective teaching methods, and encouraged to develop a fresh sense of professionalism focused on outcomes and accountability - rather than on a spurious "autonomy".

Values get changed by a combination of inspiration, conviction and experience. The literacy summer schools proved their worth, and the good news has spread through example and word of mouth. We are now seeing primary teachers becoming convinced that the new literacy and numeracy hours work - and through that conviction inspiring others.

Times are changing, and the old ways of thinking aren't good enough any more. Bob Dylan is 56. Moaning about paperwork and hating Chris Woodhead are not adequate substitutes for the improved teaching skills and lively expectations which would result in more children emerging from school with can-do attitudes and useable skills. The Government has achieved a great deal in its first six months. No one could say now that it is soft on standards. The next step must be a credible strategy for getting the teachers on board.

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