Good teaching can't be imposed by edict

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Concluding his farewell to educational journalism after more than 22 years in the editor's chair, Willis Pickard looks at the constants and the change

There was an almighty stushie 20 years ago when The TES Scotland was given an advance copy of an Inspectorate report on primary 4-primary 7. These were the days before leaking became an art practised to perfection by ministers and their spin doctors. The investigation trawled through the then Scottish Education Department and found nothing.

It was, however, a more anguished and thorough inquiry than the current half-hearted effort by the Parliament's standards committee to find out why we had the education committee's report on special needs a week before MSPs. The P4-P7 report found that in the early eighties many teachers had not altered their classroom practice to take account of the liberalising Primary Memorandum from away back in 1965. Far from Scottish teachers having fallen victim to the deschooling licence that allegedly plagued London, they showed the conservative face of the profession.

We often forget that much teaching goes on unaffected by the changes that sweep across the system imposing new burdens and adding to workload. There are enough constants in education to make one ask about the effect of the raft of initiatives beloved of ministers and their officials.

On the surface all is flux. Would anyone have imagined that an eager-beaver union official called Keir Bloomer who was reported in December 1977, in the first edition of The TES Scotland I edited, as demanding a 15 per cent rise for all teachers would be transformed into a council chief executive who would now have to fund such a payout?

In the same edition the Secretary of State was deciding which colleges of education could be closed without risking Labour constituencies. Now we face a shortage of teachers as we confront the McCrone target of 4,000 more.

Journalists need change. Without it there would be blank columns. But I wonder if the ups and downs of educational politics make as much difference to teachers and pupils as we like to think. For 15 years schools had paid less attention to the Primary Memorandum than the Inspectorate wanted. The 5-14 guidelines eventually broadened the curriculum and ensured all schools came into line. Yet I was struck by headteacher Brian Toner's admission in his column last week that, faced with taking a P6 class, he had to resist the teptation to overdose on maths and language.

Alongside a belief in the tried and tested there is a great desire for things to improve. Teachers do not need a much hyped social inclusion policy to try to give many pupils a better hand than they were dealt by fate and society. A national framework for raising standards has proved necessary. Without the 5-14 guidelines there would still be too many vagaries in primary schools. Standard grades and now Higher Still are turning the comprehensive model into an educational reality, with the consequent expansion of higher education.

But the quest for uniformity has gone too far. It has led to the excessive amounts of data collection and form-filling that bedevil schools. Devolved management means taking on administrative chores without winning professional autonomy, and if headteachers still find their hands tied, are they likely to spread democracy across the school?

Governments rarely know their own mind. When the Munn and Dunning reports became the Standard grade programme, teachers were called on to devise new courses. Then the unions used a threat to Standard grade as a weapon in the two-year dispute of the mid-eighties. So the rest of the programme was imposed by central government. And 10 years later Higher Still had very limited teacher involvement, which has led to continuing disaffection. The 5-14 programme on the other hand, although riddled with the jargon of strands and attainment targets, has had more of a base in classrooms.

Government will never surrender complete control because it calls the financial tune. External exams, which will be needed for the foreseeable future, impose a pattern on secondary schools. But you can't tell 50,000 teachers how to do their job if you want them to be lively and creative, and allies in the campaign for a more equitable society.

As never before, our columns are filled with reports of school-based projects and innovations. Some offer a lead to other teachers. The folly of imposing a national "solution" to the challenge is recognised. Perhaps the time has come for the retreat to be sounded on intervention in other areas better left to schools and individual teachers.

Teacher discontents will never disappear. They belong in the staffroom like the coffee stains. But the feeling of being at the mercy of incessant pressures can be relieved if some of the work is being done your way and by your choice.

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