Learn to trust the teachers

28th November 1997 at 00:00
What is to be done about the staffing shortage? Kathryn Riley advocates a sea-change in society's attitude to the job, while Sue Purkiss, (below), suggests we should make use of a group of professionals long overlooked.

Government attitudes to teachers and teaching can shape how society views the profession, the supply of staff and their quality.

Teaching is a more attractive proposition in some countries than others. Earlier this year, the French government said that it had 25,000 projected vacancies for 1998. A total of 200,000 graduates sat the entry test for teacher training.

In Scotland, there are now 10 applicants for every one teacher- training place. There are no teacher shortages in Israel, Holland or Japan. Contrast this with England, with its acute recruitment problems, shortages in particular subjects, and retention difficulties.

Scottish teachers are paid similarly to their English counterparts but have a higher status. According to Ivor Sutherland of the Scottish General Teaching Council, their morale is in better shape because "teachers haven't had quite the same bashing as the profession south of the border".

Teachers in Israel and Holland are entitled to a sabbatical every six years. Teaching in Japan is a collaborative enterprise, supported by co-operative styles of management.

The status of teaching varies from country to country. The US suffers from an historical perception of teaching as a semi-skilled occupation for which minimal preparation was needed.

We need to think about the nature of teaching as a profession. Should it follow the pattern of other professions? Professions probably have a number of characteristics which include a concept of social purpose and social obligation, underpinned by an ethical foundation. Professions have a degree of autonomy, regulate themselves and discipline their members. They have strong routes into a body of academic knowledge which links theory to practice, and a notion of professional practice characterised by the ability to draw on that knowledge to make decisions. Exercising judgment is at the centre of what it means to be a professional and implies an ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty.

Teaching has a clear social purpose. It has strong academic links and theoretical underpinnings. Aspiring teachers are expected to demonstrate deep understanding of their specialist subjects. But are teachers trusted to make decisions? If one of the characteristics of a profession is the scope to exercise judgment, this has been substantially eroded over recent years in England and Wales.

Acquiring professional status has drawbacks, as well as opportunities. Professions have a tendency to pursue the interests of their own group which may not always coincide with those of the client, the patient, or the student. There is a danger that in the pursuit of teaching as a profession, the knowledge content will overshadow practice - the relationships with children and young people, the process of discovery and inquiry. Both are needed.

We need to create a robust professional model for the 21st century. But we also need to construct new understandings which take into account the nature of teaching, and which emphasise the role of teachers as part of a professional community in which they - as well as their pupils -are learners, constantly reflecting and developing.

Proposals for a general teaching council (GTC) in England bring to the fore some of the elements of the debate about the profession. If society is to trust its professionals, then it needs to be convinced that the group which represents it is assuring quality. In the case of the GTC, it would appear that the Government intends to retain responsibility for controlling teacher quality. The GTC will not be a self-regulating body but according to schools standards minister Stephen Byers, a "general teaching council not a general teachers' council". It is unlikely to have the same clout, or autonomy as its Scottish counterpart.

We also need to think carefully about the nature of professional development and look critically at what an American colleague of mine has described as the typical "quick-fix" short course - of no more help to teachers than "yo-yo" dieting. There are skills to be learned but professional development needs to be about inquiry: how to investigate what students are doing and thinking, how to enable teachers to operate experimentally and challenge their own thinking. We need to find ways of supporting professional development networks. Teachers in California who were active participants in professional networks had higher standards, a stronger service ethic in their relations with students, and a greater commitment to the teaching profession than other colleagues.

In the closing days of the Second World War, Arnold McNair was given the task by the Churchill government of looking at the recruitment and training of teachers. He concluded that the teaching profession would need to be made more attractive and its status enhanced as "England - we do not say England and Wales - has never attached enough importance to education and has therefore never given the teaching profession the esteem it deserves".

The report argued for a change of heart and emphasised the importance of quality. If the country was to create a "wise democracy" in the post-Hitler world, then it would need to recruit people of the highest calibre to teaching. The ban on married women teachers (which had been imposed by many local authorities) should be reversed, as it resulted in the loss of highly qualified and dedicated people.

Teaching required more than knowledge of subject matter. Teachers needed to be able to interpret the meaning of complex changes and enable young people to be able to discriminate and not be "an easy prey to sensations and cheap appeals". The report concluded that the teaching profession had a strong social purpose and needed to be at the heart of the post-war reconstruction of society.

Over recent years we have witnessed growing demands and expectations on teachers and greater demands for accountability. We are moving towards higher entry standards for teachers, extended periods of probation and more stringent standards at every level of the profession. Perhaps it is also about time we learned to trust our teachers.

Professor Kathryn Riley is director of the Centre for Educational Management, the Roehampton Institute London. Whose School is it Anyway? by Kathryn Riley will be published by Falmer Press, in January.

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