Forever outsiders if the State continues to intervene

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Albert Camus, when he came to write what was to be his last novel, certainly did not forget his teacher, M Bernard, who opened to his pupils a world beyond the harshness and poverty of the poorest of French settlers in Algeria.

School did not just provide the boys with an escape from family life; "it fed a hunger in them more basic even to the child than to the man, and that is the hunger for discovery." And M Bernard? His class was always interesting, according to Camus, "for the simple reason that he loved his work with a passion".

Camus's recollection illustrates one of the issues raised by the latest round of Government intervention to recruit teachers, peppered by the plethora of statements from officials, advisers, committees, quangos: the relationship between government and teaching.

Is there, or should there be, one? Does, or indeed should, government understand what it is to teach, or determine the framework for teaching and its content? Or has such misguided ambition and consequent official intervention led to the very problem of teacher shortages with which this same officialdom now grapples?

Government and its officials might more profitably contemplate how the decades of local and central interventionism in teaching show that where the state, local or central, in this country has sought to organise, to run, to control, to appoint, to regulate, it has merely imposed a model alien to the autonomy of the school and the professionalism of the teacher.

More than anything, that model of organisation and content has helped to destroy the integrity of teaching, and steadily but surely the school as the gateway to a world apart.

Over the last decades the teaching profession has become part of a much wider education bureaucracy or service, run by local and central government and its anti-intellectual quangos. Teaching has been demeaned by being subordinated to the fiat of the local - and central - official in a collective system designed and implemented by the local authority until the 1980s, and thereafter by one more centrally controlled.

Content and methodology were ordained to reflect the preoccupations of the post-war social scientist, and the education service was developed, with a top tier of officials who would manage the service and a second tier of teachers who would teach. (The model was one touted, indeed successfully for social services, by the social scientists in post-war decades under Richard Titmuss).

Even entry to teaching was to be controlled and restricted to card-carrying educationists with an "education" degree. Subject specialists or graduates who had taken their degrees in history or physics or maths could be admitted if they too gained a postgraduate "education" certificate.

Teachers, pupils and their schools have paid the price. Official theories, methodologies, content have all been proposed for the classroom, and each generation has reflected the most recent orthodoxy. These in turn have been translated into the idiom of the official curriculum for a teaching body, no longer treated as a profession, but as employees, whose task has been to carry out the increasingly menial functions allocated by their local - and central - paymasters.

It is hardly surprising that the system based on this model is now in crisis, with a shortage of potential teachers, a haemorrhage of able ones, and, dare one say, a fair number of the mediocre remaining, attracted as they must have been in the past to the job, not the profession. But is there the remotest chance that more of the same - or indeed different - initiatives, will make for an increase in the number of good teachers?

I remember a conversation during the 1987 election campaign with Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher, when he asked about the Conservative manifesto. As he listened with amused patience to the list of intentions which the Government (even under that doughty fighter for small government, Mrs Thatcher) was stating, he hinted at the limits of what government could do.

Oakeshott had written much about education and what it is to teach: to impart knowledge and convey information; to transmit the wisdom of experience - for all of which the teacher must be master of his subject. The context for teaching was the direct relationship between teacher and taught. Just as, he had written, "the ruler is partnered by the citizen, the physician by his patient, the clown by his audience", so the "activity of the teacher is specified in the first place by the character of his partner".

To put it another way, the teacher communicates to his partner. "His peculiarity is that what he communicates is appropriate to a partner who is a pupil which may be received only by being learned." What that was, for Oakeshott, was an inheritance to which each human being can succeed only in a process of learning. That inheritance is one of human achievements - knowledge - and the two components information and judgment can both be communicated and acquired, but cannot be acquired separately.

As for Camus, so for Oakeshott, the school is a world apart, the idea of "school" is that of detachment from the immediate, local world of the learner, where the moral and intellectual inheritance of civilisation will be encountered.

Slowly but surely the model which has developed since the war has driven out such a notion of teaching and school, and until the status quo is reversed there can be little chance of increasing the number of good teachers.

The state and its officials can hardly make such a transformation. Even if their minds or hearts were in it, the history of their intervention is one where the official remains in charge, and the partnership of teacher and pupil is subordinate.

Until this changes, until the permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Employment, the director of education in the local authority, the chairman of the education Select Committee, the head of the Teacher Training Agency, all support a government - any government - in its resolve to set schools free of the state, so that teachers are employed by heads and governors to teach pupils, and government restricts its intervention to external inspection and a framework for fair external testing, we will continue to exclude the prospect of a teaching profession, in favour of a band of functionaries.

Sheila Lawlor is director of the think tank, Politeia

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today