The future's cloudy for our teachers

7th February 2003 at 00:00
MOST teachers know the value of planning but the time-frame in which they operate is usually confined to the short or medium term. Serious policy-makers (as distinct from "quick fix" politicians) have to think in longer terms. The sorts of questions they ask involve trying to envisage what schools will be like in five, 10 or 20 years.

Many advanced education systems face similar challenges and one agency that has given careful thought to the future is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has set out a number of scenarios designed to stimulate thinking. These do not claim to be firm predictions, simply extrapolations based on an analysis of the strengths and limitations of existing educational provision, and an assessment of the impact of pressures deriving from globalisation and the knowledge economy.

One of the possible futures is called "teacher exodus - the meltdown scenario". It envisages serious difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers and an economic climate which would make it impossible for governments to provide the level of rewards that would make teaching attractive. Standards would begin to fall and public confidence in state education would plummet. Inequalities between different areas would increase and parents who could afford to do so would seek private alternatives to state provision. The resulting crisis might stimulate radical thinking but policy responses, even if well conceived, would take time to have any effect.

It is interesting to place the OECD report alongside the recent survey by the General Teaching Council for England which found that more than half the teachers who responded said that their morale was lower than when they joined the profession, and a third expected to leave teaching within five years. The factors that demotivated them most were workload (including unnecessary paperwork), the target-driven culture, government interference leading to "initiative overload" and poor pupil behaviour.

There were predictable responses in Scotland along the lines that the teaching force here is more stable and, post-McCrone, more positive in attitude. However, it is important to locate the findings in the context of the economic factors considered by the OECD. There are significant regional variations which affect career decisions and teacher morale. In the south of England, where house prices are high and employment prospects good, incentives and opportunities to leave the profession are strong. The comparative stability of the teaching force in Scotland may simply indicate a different set of economic circumstances.

Teachers might well be attracted to move if the Scottish economy offered attractive prospects elsewhere. In other words, teacher attitudes are subject to external influences deriving from the labour market and the wider economy.

The "meltdown" vision is the most dramatic of the OECD's possible futures.

Perhaps more likely for the next few years, as far as Scotland is concerned, is another scenario called "robust bureaucratic school systems" which assumes the continuation of strong central control of state schooling. This is evident in the Scottish Executive's response last week to the national education debate where what is proposed is a pragmatic approach to traditional issues (assessment, pupil choice, class sizes, school buildings, discipline). No doubt public and professional contributions to the debate reflected these concerns, suggesting a worrying lack of longer-term vision.

At one point the Executive refers to the need for "radical new thinking" but the model that is set out bears all the hallmarks of a dated form of operational management. As is so often the case in Scottish education, there is a disturbing gap between rhetoric and reality.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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