Learning revolution will take more time ... from you

30th January 1998 at 00:00
I feel a natural affinity to teachers, and not just because I am married to one. For 21 out of the 30 years of my journalistic life, I have been employed by Sunday newspapers. So you only have to work on Saturdays, people would say. What do you do all the rest of the week? This line of questioning infuriates Sunday newspaper journalists who, because nothing happens on Saturdays, have to spend all week ferreting out new stories and new information and, therefore, believe that they actually work harder than their daily newspaper colleagues.

Likewise, teachers are infuriated by the inevitable comments on their short hours and long holidays. What teachers and Sunday paper journalists have in common is that nobody acknowledges the effort behind the finished product; they are assumed to be working only when in the precise act of teaching children or writing an article. Almost everybody accepts that actors have to rehearse and learn their lines. Yet the popular perception of the teacher remains unchanged from that implied two centuries ago in Goldsmith's poem: that, somehow, he or she can effortlessly pour out words "of learned length and thund'ring sound" while onlookers marvel that "one small head could carry all he knew".

So proposals that teachers should work harder go down well with the public. Indeed, who could possibly object to the idea that other people should work harder? Though teachers think their burdens have become greater in recent years, the resentments against them have, if anything, increased. People in other professions feel under immense pressure to work round the clock, 45 or 46 weeks a year; they, too, are beset by targets and performance appraisal; and, after the great downsizings of the 1990s, they believe that, for all the talk of naming and shaming, weeding-out and fast-tracking, teachers enjoy an exceptionally high security of tenure.

Further (and this explains why professional women are particularly adamant that school holidays should be cut) teachers can be away from work at the same time as their children are off school. Two teacher parents (and more than 40 per cent of male teachers are married to another teacher) have far fewer worries about child care and its expense than other professional couples.

Sheila Lawlor, for example, writing in this space last week, grumbles that schools "shut up shop during holidays" and says that "doctors are on call, even on Christmas Day". Well, I can't think what anybody would want a teacher for on Christmas Day, though I suppose anything is possible in David Blunkett's learning society; and it seems clear that Sheila Lawlor has not recently fallen ill outside normal surgery hours, much less at Christmas.

But that is by the by. Dr Lawlor's refrain is in tune with the times, or so she may reasonably think. New Labour is making a concerted attempt - I have heard both ministers and senior backbenchers express very similar views on the subject - to create a climate of opinion that teachers should work longer hours. As The TES reported last week, Stephen Byers, the schools minister, has talked of scrapping the existing teachers' contract.

But the precise number of hours that teachers work is not, I think, the real issue. This concerns the whole pattern of the school day, the school year and school organisation which, in their essentials, are unchanged since the middle of the last century. We take groups of roughly 30 children, place a single teacher in front of them, confine them between the four walls of a classroom, divide their day into seven or eight roughly equal periods and their year into three 13-week terms. That, we imply, is all there is to education, apart from a little homework.

The model was perfectly adequate for instructing children in nothing more than the basics of reading, writing, number and general knowledge. But is it still adequate in the 1990s? Surely not. It is time to acknowledge that children can learn in different ways: not just from teachers but from other adults, not just from textbooks and blackboards but from computerprograms and the Internet, not just in classes of 30 but in groups of five, 10, 20, 50 or even 100, not just inside classrooms but in offices, factories, libraries and museums.

This indeed was the thinking behind many of the great adventures of the 1960s and 1970s: the de-schooling movement, the free schools, Countesthorpe College in Leicestershire and the Sutton Centre in Nottinghamshire.

These experiments largely failed, partly because the education system as a whole measured success in traditional O-levels and A-levels (and, if you attempt non-traditional learning, you need a few non-traditional measures of success); partly because they did not carry parents with them; partly because they seemed, at times, to deny that learning was important at all and to muddle up the whole thing with social revolution.

The traditionalists so completely won that argument that we have become terrified of anything that appears to make learning more liberal or more flexible. Any change in education, if it is to be politically acceptable, must appear to entail more constraint, more discipline, more hard work, more focus on the basics.

So now I want to take an optimistic view (or, to the likes of Dr Lawlor, I suppose, a pessimistic one): New Labour intends to revolutionise learning but isn't letting on. It announces a focus on traditional literacy and numeracy, with lots of talk about whole-class teaching and chanting tables every morning, while planning to let a thousand wild flowers bloom in the afternoons. It announces that business - which everybody accepts to be safely traditional - will play a big role in the education action zones, while planning to revive those Seventies ideas about the city and its streets being a learning resource.

And it announces that it will make teachers work longer hours, exciting Sheila Lawlor and others with the prospect of more marking of homework or standing in front of blackboards, when its real intention is to revive the idea of (in the horrible jargon) "the learning facilitator".

You don't believe me? Then turn to The Learning Game (Indigo, Pounds 8. 99), written before the election by Michael Barber, now head of David Blunkett's standards and effectiveness unit - a book acclaimed by Tony Blair as provocative and timely, illuminating and optimistic. Read, in particular, chapter nine, a detailed and persuasive advocacy of the kind of learning revolution I have outlined above. Sorry, Michael, you've been rumbled!

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today