The great debate is still with us

8th April 2005 at 01:00
The public prints have been full of reminiscences about the Callaghan era.

Whatever the failings or successes of his tenure in Downing Street, there is little doubt of his legacy for education, north and south of the border.

It is difficult to recall the impact now but, when Jim Callaghan launched his "great debate" on the future of education in 1976, he dared to suggest that what went on in schools was a matter of legitimate public interest.

Three decades ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the extent and detail of the scrutiny teachers come under today. They are observed by heads, other teachers, quality improvement "advisers", HM inspectorate, students, researchers, consultants and school board members. No doubt when the Executive's schools of ambition programme is up and running, the degree of attention for some schools will intensify. No wonder teachers complain.

When Callaghan delivered his speech at Ruskin College, which raised the idea of a national curriculum and greater accountability for schools, it was possible to teach for 30 years without being observed by any adult, let alone an HMI. Obviously there must be a happy medium. Much of today's classroom observation has to do with sharing good practice and enabling teachers to examine aspects of their own work, while learning from that of others. Some is necessary monitoring because schools must be publicly accountable. And sometimes criticism cannot be avoided.

Fear and anticipation of inspections, inevitably, will often lead to over-preparation. As ever, heads must give a lead. Teachers must be accountable, but the pressure has to be proportionate. We assume that would leave Lord Callaghan spinning contentedly in his grave.

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