How we lost our love of Labour

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Many staff celebrated in 1997 but now feel let down. Blair needs to drop key policies to win them back, says Mary Bousted

In his speech to the party faithful in Bournemouth in September, Tony Blair recalled the heady days after Labour's election victory in 1997. I have my own memories too.

At that time I was working at the University of York as a tutor, training postgraduate students to become English teachers. I remember the morning after the election, driving out to a school to supervise a student on teaching practice. I'm glad to report that this student taught an excellent lesson, the end of which coincided with morning break. I suggested that we make our way to the staffroom for coffee and to debrief.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the door to what appeared to be a staffroom party. All was explained when the deputy head offered me a glass of champagne - to celebrate Labour's election triumph. But if Labour were re-elected tomorrow, would teachers be breaking out the champagne?

This question is important when one considers the positive outcomes of policies that this Government has championed, in particular:

* providing support, through Sure Start local programmes, for 375,000 children under four and their families in the most deprived areas of England;

* providing part-time nursery education for all four-year-olds and 88 per cent of three-year-olds;

* the improvement in children's literacy and numeracy, through the national literacy and numeracy strategies;

* the development of a system of 14-19 education which, in the future, will place the needs of the learner at the centre.

These are real achievements, and their worth should not be underestimated.

But it is clear that so much more could be achieved if the Government had the courage to tackle faultlines in its education policies which undermine its ability to achieve its central goal - the raising of standards.

Let me introduce these by asking another question:how is the Government going to realise its ambition to promote collaboration between schools, through federations of schools, or through the sharing of good practice by specialist schools, when we are operating within a system which is predicated on division? This division - either by status, as in specialist schools, city academies and so forth, or by results published in league tables - is a major faultline. A lot more needs to be done to create effective structures in which partnership can flourish.

The tyranny of targets, of externally-imposed performance measures, impacts on the second faultline, the lack of recognition by the Government of teachers' expert knowledge and skills - their professionalism. There is still a strongly-held view that teachers cannot be trusted. Ministers and civil servants alike doubt the profession's commitment to raising standards. The onslaught of policy initiatives from New Labour is a shining testimony to this distrust. All are predicated on a deficit model:

"Teachers, you're not doing xxxx, so we're going to produce a document, a CD, or a video, to show you how to teach literacy, numeracy, speaking and listening, citizenship, cross-curricular themes, or leadership." And so on.

The Government should pause in its drive to tell the profession what to do - particularly when it is clear that, in hindsight, so many of its panaceas have proved ineffective. It needs to recognise that, in spite of its rhetoric of "continuity and progression", "joined-up thinking" and "seeing the big picture", too often there is a fundamental and damaging lack of coherence between one policy initiative and the next.

One example is the key stage 3 strategy, developed with little reference to the developments taking place in the 14-19 phase. Another is the new primary strategy, Excellence and Enjoyment, which was developed in haste and, despite welcome acknowledgements of the need for creativity and teacher choice, does not provide the engine of transformation of primary education which needs to go far beyond the basics.

And of course, when the faultlines between one policy initiative and another are exposed, it is left to teachers to sort out the mess while ministers and their civil servants move blithely on to the next "bright idea".

The Government needs to build on its successful model of social partnership, embodied in the workload agreement, to a model of professional partnership with teachers, teacher associations, and researchers. A proper, professional partnership would require the establishment of strong and effective consultation that, when necessary, would allow the "awkward squad" to ask fundamental and difficult questions. This would help to stem the flood of failed initiatives, such as Fresh Start schools, individual learning accounts, Year 7 "progress" tests and vocational A-levels, and so prevent instability and waste in the system.

Tony Blair admitted in his conference speech that a "top down" approach wouldn't work anymore. Let us hope that Education Secretary Charles Clarke realises this too.

The Prime Minister was right when he said that we need a "progressive, imaginative, vibrant public debate" about how to achieve the best for our children and young people.

All who work in education - teachers and support workers - are dedicated to achieving higher standards.

Let us hope that an honest and open debate on how to achieve this begins.

It is long overdue.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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