Hail zero intolerance?;Opinion

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Questioning policy initiatives does not have to meanopposing them. Hazel Bines argues for more debate

DURING the past few weeks the press has been full of analyses of Labour's first year in office. Attention has focused on current and future targets and on initiatives such as education action zones.

The benefits of the priority Labour is giving to education have been recognised, including more spending on buildings and on smaller classes in the early years. Although there remain concerns about some aspects of policy, such as pay rises, the consensus seems to be that the Government has made a good start.

I agree with this view, and welcome the concern about social exclusion and the way in which the Government has included policy and provision for special educational needs as part of its plans.

However, insufficient attention has been given to creating the right climate for future developments. And although it is recognised that the morale of teachers is a problem, there seem to be few plans really to address this issue. Above all, there is not enough genuinely open discussion of the content and possible outcomes of some policies.

Such a scenario is, of course, familiar to those who have worked in education for some years. Under the Conservative government we became used to instant reform, and to teachers and other education professionals being subject to continuous criticism.

The new government, with an apparent commitment to new approaches, was therefore welcomed with both relief and hope. However, morale seems to be lower than ever - not least because certain expectations have not been realised.

Policies still seem to be based on the belief that standards will not be raised without targets being set and monitored and that teachers, teacher-trainers and education authorities need to be told how to do their work. This implies that we may not be capable of, or committed to, raising standards.

Given that teaching is based on enhancing progress and achievement, this represents a fundamental challenge to professionalism. There is also a tendency to see any reservations or criticism as a lack of commitment to the policy agenda. If teachers' views are also discounted in this way, it is hardly surprising that they feel overworked and undervalued.

Teachers are not generally resistant to change. Indeed they have accommodated a huge amount over the past 20 years, often with enthusiasm and commitment. They have also worked hard to modify the gaps in policy.

Similarly, education authorities have adapted to their new role and teacher-trainers have implemented major changes in both initial and in-service training.

There are many aspects that could be improved, and teachers and others need to evaluate critically their beliefs and practice. However, some policies have also been problematic - which ought to be acknowledged.

For example, although the literacy hour has much to commend it, there is a danger of insufficient differentiation for some pupils, particularly those with substantial reading difficulties.

The focus on basic skills and the core subjects in both primary education and teacher training may also have a negative impact on the range of curricular expertise and pupil learning within primary schools. Funding levels can make a difference to quality, and pupils' social backgrounds do influence their educational achievements.

Such views should not be treated as heresy, but as genuine concern about the possible unintended consequences of certain policy initiatives.

We should also acknowledge that critical evaluations of schools and teachers have problematic consequences. One of the most serious is on the image of teaching and the effect on recruitment. Another is the impact on our credibility in international educational work. Above all, spurious consultation and lack of debate do not create the learning culture that we need.

Teachers rightly would be challenged if they approached pupils' learning in a didactic, negative and critical way. Similarly, we need a positive and open-minded attitude to teachers' performance and the factors most likely to enhance educational achievement.

Zero tolerance of failure should not mean zero tolerance of constructive criticism and debate. Rather, it means creating a climate within which issues and policies are discussed and evaluated.

Chris Woodhead seems to think that there is a "toxic mix of educational beliefs and mismanagement" bedevilling change. But this has been created as much by government as by schools, authorities or teacher trainers. Education is too precious to get it wrong again.

Greater tolerance of different views and the sharing of expertise and experience might be a better way to make real progress. I suggest we make "zero intolerance" a theme of the next few years to support the climate for change.

Professor Hazel Bines is assistant dean of the faculty of health, social work and education, University of Northumbria

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