Jury still out on teachers' `crime'

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
Four hundred and forty thousand teachers walked free last Friday when a "jury" found them not guilty of letting the nation's children down by allowing standards in schools to slide.

The verdict, passed by a studio audience at the end of BBC Radio 4's In the Dock, was unanimous, but the profession is still nervously awaiting a second supplementary verdict tonight, when the result of a listeners' poll is announced.

The programme, presented by Sue Cameron, was the first in a series of debates in which professionals face accusations of "crimes" against the public. There were two against the teaching profession; first that they are letting children down, and second, that teacher-training colleges are failing to give students an adequate preparation.

The chief witness for the prosecution was, to no one's surprise, the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, who sounded uncharacteristically subdued throughout the programme. But he was supported with passion by Stephan Shakespeare, a special needs teacher from Lambeth, whose devotion to the chief inspector had an almost religious quality - all his contributions sounded as if he were trying to out-Woodhead Woodhead. Also on the prosecution side were Dr John Marks, of the Independent Educational Research Trust and Jane Dewar, a former student teacher who was disgusted by the quality of her teacher training.

The defence comprised, again predictably, Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter, Doug McAvoy of the National Union of Teachers, and Terry Bladen, an executive member of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

The contributors quickly took up entrenched positions on league tables, resources and the lack of them, the importance of looking at value added, and the reliability or otherwise of inspection evidence. Fortunately for the less high-minded listeners, the arguments descended into personal attacks.

Mr Woodhead kicked off with his favourite statistic about a third of lessons being unsatisfactory, and a neatly emotive analogy: "If a teacher was taking a class across the road and 30 per cent didn't get to the other side, I think that is rather significant."

This was countered later by Ted Wragg who pointed out that 49 per cent of HMI had awarded bottom grades to a speech by Mr Woodhead a while ago. Jane Dewar's assertion that teacher training was "riddled with liberal thinking", and her evidence that she was forbidden to use whole-class teaching and watched people who had never read Shakespeare qualify to teach A-level English, left everyone wondering which college she had attended.

The defence argued that they knew of no colleges or schools that committed these crimes against common sense. The chief inspector then played his ace, holding up for ridicule a TES article by Ted Wragg suggesting that the 40 per cent of time not taken up by whole-class teaching should be divided into "39 per cent copying off the blackboard and 1 per cent for scratching your bum".

"When we have professors of education writing like that, I wonder about the quality of education being offered to students like Jane," he said. Unfortunately, the audience laughed at the joke, so the round went to Ted Wragg.

Both Chris Woodhead and Stephan Shakespeare repeatedly accused the witnesses for the defence of being defensive; Mr Woodhead said this was the aspect of the debate that he found most worrying.

To which Ted Wragg replied that "if we don't deny the charges, people would say they must be true, if we do, we're accused of being defensive - it's a no win situation."

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