The eerie sound of staffroom silence

5th November 2004 at 00:00
As long as teachers fail to articulate their views, politicians will continue to use education for their own ends, writes David Perks

Newly-qualified teachers could be forgiven for thinking that on entering the profession they had taken a monastic vow of silence. Their views are seldom asked for and never heard. This is a far cry from when I joined the profession in the 1980s. The staffroom was a hotbed of politics. Teachers had a powerful and critical voice, albeit channelled through the labour movement. Alongside this was a belief that education meant something and even new teachers came into the classroom full of radical ideas. We believed education belonged to teachers and not the state. Of course, not all of our ideas were good. Nevertheless young teachers engaged in passionate debate about the purpose and future of education.

The staffroom is an eerily quiet place these days. The only regulars in my staffroom are The Times crossword club. In one school I know there is a proposal to convert the staffroom into open plan office space. With the defeat of militant trade unionism teachers fled the staffroom, preferring to stay in their departments. Several newly-qualified teachers at my school did not set foot in the staffroom all of last year. It's lucky we wear ID badges or we would not know who they were.

The fragility of the relationship teachers have with each other during working hours reflects a lack of common purpose. This affects seasoned teachers as much as new recruits. The politicisation of education has long been with us. Pulled this way and that by politicians attempting to use it as a vehicle for solving most of society's ills, education has been cut adrift from its moorings. The Government's obsession with attacking institutional elitism and its propensity to lurch from one badly thought-out reform package to another has undermined the core values of education. It's not surprising, then, that teachers don't really know what they are teaching and what for. This makes conversation difficult.

Yet it is the poverty of debate about education, especially during this government's term of office, that has allowed ill thought-out blunders to be made at an accelerated rate. Last summer's furore over A-level grade inflation indicates the paucity of debate. David Miliband, the school standards minister, accused his opponents of being party to "this national sport of talking down young people". Anyone who argued grade inflation was a problem was dubbed "elitist". However, while the argument about fractional percentage point increases in pass rates continues, the working group on 14-19 reform has suggested the end of an academic education for the majority of Britain's young people.

Politicians do not enter into educational reforms for the benefit of education. They bring with them their own concerns. For some it is blind hatred of the state system. For others it is an obsession with undermining elitist structures. No doubt they also want to improve education but that is a secondary concern. Even when not driven by ideology they are responding to the political consequences of their bureaucratic cock-ups.

The near collapse of the examinations system on the introduction of the AS-level is a clear example of this.

In these circumstances it should be obvious that those who deliver education have a responsibility to call the politicians to account. By clarifying what education can and can't do and by setting out their vision teachers can help to redress the balance or at least engender a more realistic public debate. If teachers refrain from engaging in the debate about the future of education they hand over the responsibility to those least suited to the job, the politicians. The vacuum left at the centre of education becomes a void to be filled by overtly political concerns.

I am not advocating a return to union politics. These days union leaders are most vocal when clamouring to be the first to instruct their members not to go on school trips for fear of being sued or demanding more intervention to protect their members from assaults. This has the effect of lowering our horizons about what education is for and what is possible. The victim mentality of the profession is not something to be proud of and only succeeds in alienating teachers from the rest of society.

The alternative is to set up a new forum for teachers to voice their concerns. Next week, we aim to do just that, with the first of a series of debates in Tooting, London. Creating such a forum for confronting the difficult questions that lie at the heart of education will give teachers the confidence to see through the reformers' half- baked ideas.

Now more than ever teachers need such a voice. With a general election looming and politicians wavering on implementing the recommendations of the Tomlinson report - potentially the most far-reaching since the introduction of the national curriculum - it would be a disaster if teachers' voices are not heard.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney school, Tooting, south London.

The first of a series of forums on key education issues, discussing the Tomlinson reforms, will be held at Graveney on Friday, November 12 at 3.30pm. Guest speaker will be Dr Dennis Hayes, editor of the Routledge-Falmer Guide to Key Debates in Education.

Join the debate at

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