Keeping up appearances with Labour;Opinion

5th June 1998 at 01:00
IRONICALLY, Peter Wilby - my distinguished predecessor in this column- began his stint as editor of the New Statesman by publishing 1,000 words on teacher training which qualify for nomination as the silliest article of the year.

The author - Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the select committee on education - demonstrated her intellectual standards with an anecdote which she seemed to think confirmed her view that "we should be thinking of employing fewer teachers not more". Apparently, a friend told her "about a chemistry teacher who completely lost the respect of his pupils and ended up locked in his own store cupboard".

The arguments which Ms Hodge advances need not detain us. But the article is important in one particular. It exemplifies the contribution which New Labour is making to the teacher recruitment crisis.

The shortage of qualified teachers is an indisputable fact which has been intensified by the wholly admirable decision to reduce primary class sizes. Regrettably, many recruits entered university with minimum qualifications and left with poor degrees. But quality and quantity can only be improved and increased by the application of elementary psychology and basic economics.

The New Labour Government was never going to pay the teachers what they deserve nor what the country needs to guarantee the right levels of recruitment. But until the new ministers moved into the Department for Education and Employment, we had no way of knowing how much damage they would do to teachers' morale - or the way in which they would reduce the profession's esteem in the eyes of potential new recruits.

Teachers themselves looked forward to the election with what now seems like naive optimism. Disillusion is fast approaching despair. They have begun to realise the sub-text of policy. Tough on teachers and tough on the causes of the teaching crisis has become a New Labour virility test.

The underlying attitude was epitomised by the assault on "all-ability teaching" - a practice which the Prime Minister spoke of as if it was applied to all subjects in most schools in the country. But the problem - in terms of teacher morale - was not his ignorance. It was the implication that the Government is determined to tell teachers how they should teach.

That is not the way that members of a profession are treated. Doctors make diagnoses without help from civil servants. Barristers do not ask the Attorney General how they should plead. Until teaching is treated with the same reverence, it will remain a trade. The dedicated will join. The socially ambitious will look elsewhere.

The introduction of performance pay would only deepen the crisis. Bonuses awarded after the recognition of unquantifiable merit would result in staffroom civil war. And it would again stigmatise a majority of teachers as being not up to performance pay standards.

Naming and shaming "failing" schools was the confirmation of New Labour's concern with the appearance rather than the reality of improving education. "Beacon schools" - another one of schools minister Stephen Byers's bright ideas - is an extension of the same obsession with headlines.

When the super-teachers are transferred "in order to improve the standards" of their inadequate neighbours, what sort of reception does he think they will receive? And how does he think that the Beacon school parents will feel about the best teachers being sent out on missionary work?

Yet the Government must know that its hope of improving the quality of education depends on the goodwill of teachers. Their efforts will not be increased by league tables which set one school against another. Giving real powers to the General Teaching Council would be a good way to start the process. Disowning Margaret Hodge's nonsense would be a helpful step along the way.

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