Give them due respect

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Teaching used to be a revered profession and the importance of education needs to be reaffirmed, says John Andrews

A century and more ago our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors appreciated that high-quality schools and high-quality teaching were essential to the social, cultural and economic development of the nation. Central to this was a recognition of the importance of teachers. Many of the ablest people of their generations went into teaching. Respect for teachers was high - especially in Wales, which became famous for producing first-class teachers.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for much of our society in the later decades of the 20th century. When I became chairman of the General Teaching Council for Wales in 2000, the position of teachers at that time was untenable. For too many years, teachers and teaching had been the subject of thoughtless political comment and buck-passing of responsibility. We had seen too many politicians and public figures criticising our teachers, schools and the education they provided, almost as a form of political virility Perhaps it reached its nadir with the introduction of the new AS-levels a few years ago when, before the ink was dry on the first examination papers, Westminster ministers announced that the new programme would be changed.

Pity the poor teachers and their pupils, forced to see through this process of constant change.

The introduction of the GTCW represented something of a sea change in government attitudes - perhaps even a return to earlier values that recognised the role of the profession itself Launching the GTCW, the then Assembly education minister, Rosemary Butler, said: "I want to see the profession at the forefront of leading and shaping educational change."

The fact is that teaching is an incredibly sensitive and challenging job, vital to the life of any society. The more developed a society, the more it depends on good teaching to promote and pass on knowledge, understanding and the skills required for living and working.

Yet teachers are still overworked, in that they are expected to do too many things for which they are not trained, and under-used by not being given sufficient opportunities to make full use of their professional skills and judgment.

The introduction of teaching assistants, therefore, to work alongside professionally-qualified graduate teachers - though never in their place - is to be welcomed and is perhaps indicative of the changing role of the classroom teacher.

Plans must be put in place now, however, to fully benefit from those changes, especially in the face of falling pupil numbers.

The projected 62,000 reduction in the pupil roll by 2016 must be seen as an opportunity to improve teacher-pupil ratios and not just a simple way of making budget savings.

Consider, also, the profile of the profession itself, with more than 35 per cent of teachers and 60 per cent of heads in maintained schools now aged more than 50.

We face significant retirements over the next 10 to 15 years and a considerable drain on the experience and skills within the profession. We must find innovative ways to continue to attract high-calibre individuals into the profession, such as developing the Graduate Teacher Programme to help recruit highly-qualified and experienced career changers.

Key to this is to reconsider our planning of teacher supply, rather than basing it on the Department for Education and Skills's model, which does not serve Wales well. The current review of initial teacher education and training must target shortage areas, such as key secondary phase subjects, and cease the over-supply of primary phase teachers.

We must find ways to allow experienced teachers nearing the end of their careers to "phase down" to part-time working without detriment to their pensions, which can only help to retain experience within the profession.

Central to teaching tomorrow will be the re-establishment of the respect that teachers once commanded - from pupils, parents and, importantly, policy-makers.

Wales is already advancing in this direction because the Assembly has declared its respect for the professional judgement of teachers by abandoning testing at key stages 2 and 3, and taking a flexible approach to the national curriculum.

We are on the way to putting the teaching profession back at the forefront of leading and shaping educational change.

We recognise more clearly the public responsibility that teachers have, and teachers themselves are recognising the sensitive and powerful role they play in shaping change.

Our society depends on the knowledge, skills, experience and wisdom of politicians, professors, priests, plumbers and publicans and many others.

"The one thing we all have in common is that our learning was shaped by teachers.

Professor John Andrews is the outgoing chairman of the General Teaching Council for Wales

Join the debate Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ.


Fax 029 2066 0207.

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