In inspiration we trust

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Labour will need to build constructively on the Tory legacy of reforms to meet the winning party's manifesto pledges, believes David Hargreaves Education, education, education." Teachers will long remember the fine words and solemn promises; and so will Conservative watchdogs. Not even Europe or the economy, soon to dominate the headlines, will distract critical eyes from the educational ball.

Some teachers yearn for a full-scale reversal of recent reforms. Thank goodness this won't happen. We are seeing mid-course corrections, not radical structural changes. This is surely right. Large-scale policy back-tracking would mean an unwelcome upheaval and throwing out some bonny babies with the dirty bath water.

Labour's three types of schools, community, foundation and aided, offer diversity without hierarchy. We should learn to love this mixed economy: community schools as comprehensives with scope for specialisation; foundation schools as GM schools with minor changes; and aided schools to maintain the tradition of religious schools, Islamic as well as Christian.

Real choices for parents, then, build constructively on the Conservative legacy. The principled opposition to selection by general ability turns the clock back on the slide towards a three-tier hierarchy of independent schools with more assisted places; a grammar school in every town; and secondary moderns called comprehensives for the second-class rest. (That renewed selection no longer disguised as choice was thought to be a vote-winner marks the ideological collapse of the New Right.) It is good sense to divert the costs of the Assisted Places Scheme to creating smaller classes in primary schools. Radical abolition of the independent sector would be an expensive, anti-libertarian distraction, but subsidising private schools from the public purse carries the unacceptable implication that the state system is inherently inferior.

To chart new direction is an easy matter for David Blunkett, his advisers and officials. The targets for higher standards of achievement in literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and in GCSE performance in secondary schools, are ambitious but necessary. The targets are for teachers, not for schools. To achieve them, teachers cannot work harder; and if they are to work smarter - the only alternative on offer - they need help and support.

The key is increasing teachers' self-confidence and self-esteem. Raising their morale quickly and substantially is Blunkett's toughest challenge, for on their goodwill he depends far more than did Baker, Patten and Shephard. If he fails in this, he fails overall. Moreover, as he told Radio 4: "My main task is to change the whole culture of what is seen in the education service as the 'can't do' philosophy." Changing the culture is better reform strategy than imposed solutions, but as every head knows, this needs more than words.

A revitalised culture must make teaching an attractive career, both to retain existing good teachers and to recruit new ones. The current shortfall of teachers in mathematics, science and technology, in modern languages and music, threatens the whole enterprise. So here are some morale-boosting action points for a more rewarding and effective profession that can deliver for Blunkett and Britain: * The creation of the long-promised General Teaching Council will help, but it will probably take to two to three years to establish. The teachers' unions and associations will rightly not be allowed to dominate the GTC but must restrict their role to delivering what most teachers join them for - insurance and protection of their pay and conditions of service. Moreover, a GTC necessitates a redistribution of powers and responsibilities between various bodies, including the Teacher Training Agency. This quango should continue to develop and implement its various plans to improve the quality of teachers - a national curriculum for initial teacher training, better induction during a restored probationary period, and qualifications for teachers and heads as their careers advance.

* Chris Woodhead is here to stay, but the tone and direction of OFSTED's work should change. As the pace slows down, teachers will learn to take inspections in their stride. To support longer-term improvement, more emphasis on quality assurance and internal audit rather than external quality control is now in order. Failing schools and incompetent teachers will not be tolerated, but as the criteria of failure are better formulated and understood, teachers, governors and parents will know what is amiss long before inspectors are spotted on the horizon.

* League tables are also here to stay. But if ministers really want Britain to be at the educational leading edge, we need a broader vision of the purposes of education and of the outcomes of schooling. League tables give a rough measure of important but narrow criteria of what schools do. Teachers must be actively encouraged to foster a wide range of intelligences and qualities so that students gain the positive self-image out of which grows the commitment to lifelong education. Better accountability to parents means not expensive and complicated "added value" measures, but new ways of demonstrating to parents the broader basis of each school's success.

To raise student achievement, teachers need to know what works in classrooms in terms of maximising good conduct from students, enjoyment in teaching and learning and hard work from all. Research on what works for what kinds of student in what circumstances can provide this professional know-how, and without additional cost, for we already spend Pounds 70 million annually on educational research.

Evidence-based teaching will emerge if, in partnership, practising teachers and higher education agree a research agenda and then jointly design, implement and disseminate appropriate research outcomes. It will create a climate in which teachers are actively encouraged to tinker and experiment on how to work smarter in classroom, to share ideas and practices within and between schools, and to create learning networks of professional practice around the nation. LEAs, whose transformed cultures are a glorious outcome of Tory reform, are vital players here.

On the steps of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister called for new ideas. A major flaw in the Tory reforms was that, by definition, good ideas could not come from teachers, nor could the profession be trusted to test innovations in preliminary trials. This must now change. One trusts that we shall see an end to the arrogance by which ministers, who would not dream of telling surgeons how to operate, unhesitatingly lecture teachers on how to run classrooms. Teachers need time in which to develop and test creative ideas. Research fellowships and sabbaticals for teachers are the means.

"Zero tolerance of failure" - that most dangerous of slogans - should be a spur to teachers' ambitions, not a threat. It is counter-productive to tell teachers that students in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan do better than ours, if the implication is that teachers are to blame for an achievement gap they could close easily. In those countries students are hugely motivated and backed by ambitious parents. How to motivate disenchanted and alienated British school students is a neglected educational problem.

In my view a Secretary of State for Education and Employment should start by adopting a goal of full employment for all 16-25 year-olds seeking work. Many young people are not motivated to train in full-time education for a job that might, or might not, appear. Give them a decent job, and then the opportunities to train in order to retain and get better at the job, and the motivation problem largely disappears. Education alongside work makes better policy than education before work. Politicians can solve the motivational problem more easily than can teachers.

British parents should become more supportive of teachers. The promised home-school contracts might help. A less legalistic, Blair-led campaign along the lines of "Ask not what your child's teachers can do for you, but rather what you can do for your child's teachers" would change the culture irreversibly for the better.

Many teachers remain sceptical, seeing Labour's education policy as just more of the same. It need not, and should not, be so. No reforming Education Secretary can let the agenda be shaped by the teachers alone. Because they believed education could be put right by solutions imposed from the centre and because they dispensed with a partnership with teachers, the Conservatives had disasters as well as successes.

To do better, David Blunkett, who is also in for the long haul, must inspire and trust teachers. Winning the profession's commitment will be the secret ingredient of his success.

David Hargreaves is professor of education and Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge

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