Let's celebrate

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Good teachers deserve public acclaim, bad ones should be privately but effectively tackled, say Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon. What makes a good teacher? In survey after survey the evidence over the years has been remarkably consistent. When Ted Wragg asked hundreds of children they said five things: good teachers explained things clearly, called you by your first name, helped the slower ones catch up in a nice way, helped you learn a lot in every lesson and were good listeners - not bad criteria to start with, although you would not find them all in the Office for Standards in Education handbook.

To these qualities might be added generosity, a sense of humour and an abundant supply of intellectual curiosity. Conversely, how do we recognise the failing teacher? Or put more bluntly, the bad teacher? There is evidence here, but plenty of personal recollections. Moreover, it is curious but significant that whereas you are never sure whether you are in the hands of a bad doctor or lawyer, it is easy to recognise the bad teacher. They all have one thing in common, they let down their colleagues.

Although our educational culture has come increasingly to accept the notion of good and bad schools, successful or failing in the terminology of the day, the recognition of individual teachers is remarkably muted. It might happen within schools, and pupil and parents certainly have their own views, but should this be more widely recognised?

In specific ways we would agree yes. Good teachers are in the majority and some of these are simply outstanding. There are teachers who overflow with infectious energy, boundless curiosity and optimism. As any head will testify those teachers are priceless: they have a profoundly energising and empowering effect on others. The role model they provide probably attracts more young people into teaching than any Department for Education advertising campaign. Outside school, however, who knows about it? Articles in The TES often give glimpses of the excitement which surrounds an outstanding teacher. We want to argue for a greater recognition of these achievements which mean something more than the quietly awarded promotions. Within the school, the inter-personal balances of the staffroom make such recognition difficult, although genuine celebration of staff achievement is one of the features of a successful school culture.

Now, however, there exists a national system of inspecting schools, backed up still in most education authorities by pre-and post-inspection reviews from local advisers: so it is scarcely possible to miss the brilliance of our teachers. Why not celebrate these in the reports on our schools? Such vignettes or cameos would enliven the anodyne cliches that pepper the deluge of OFSTED reports now appearing.

The English tradition of inspection (unlike the French) eschews individualistic public judgment. There are no names in OFSTED reports. Let's change that. Of course the way this is done needs some thought. No system can be objective: a few who should be recognised will be missed just as some might creep in who should not. But putting in the public mind the idea of thousands of outstanding teachers would significantly impact on public perception and confidence in schools.

Then we come to the failing teacher. Thankfully the numbers are small. But where they exist their influence is malign. And where they are in failing schools the impact can be catastrophic despite the heroic efforts of outstanding and good colleagues, usually in the majority. But they are hobbled by the inadequate, the uncaring, and sometimes the idleness of a few. Like a ship holed below the waterline the cynicism of failure can scupper any attempts at rescue.

Pupils have no difficulty in identifying failing and inadequate teachers: dealing with them managerially is another matter. The evidence base is often difficult to establish and the staffroom as a "clan", for all its positive collegial values, often inhibits action by headteachers and governors other than in the most extreme cases.

This is unsatisfactory and something that the inspection process could address. We would not accept the entry into every teacher's life of a "marked" inspection based on a single lesson. But we could envisage, following identification at the school level of self-review, the creation of an "at risk" category for individual teachers which would immediately bring local inspectors and the professional associations into play and could, if required, call on national expertise for further judgment. An OFSTED inspection team would have to be informed in advance of any teacher in this category. The advantage of such an approach, which would be confidential, would be to broaden the basis for judgment, sharing some of the professional and personal pressure at present focused on the headteacher and building in expertise to support the requirement to improve and, if necessary, the decision either to cease or to find other employment. A more explicit, probably staged, process with the role of the professional associations clearly articulated would be fairer to all parties.

Michael Barber's recent TESGreenwich lecture focused on the need to shake failing schools out of the downward spiral of decline. In these schools, and in some others less threatened, a few teachers detract from the achievements of the majority. Most significantly, they affect our children's lives: thousands suffer. We cannot allow that.

We agree with Michael Barber, therefore, that we need to rethink our attitudes to success and to failure, but always within the context of publicly celebrating success while having a private but effective means of dealing with failure. Above all in this context we need to rethink our whole approach to professional development. The danger of OFSTED is that it imposes a tyranny of orthodoxy in our schools. Rather than establishing a core of judgment values, it can smother schools with a culture of uniformity. With the furore over curriculum, assessment and inspection beginning to subside, the opportunity is presented to stand back and think again about what sort of teachers we want and how they can develop. This is crucial if we are to recruit teachers of the calibre that our expectations of schools now require. There is an urgent need for radical and inspirational thinking on teachers' professional lives. Needs, however, like schools and teachers are not uniform.

Outstanding teachers, like failing teachers, come from somewhere. Most teachers have their outstanding attributes. The era of development plans, OFSTED-focused policies and teaching to criteria have tended to obscure the way teachers, individually and perhaps even more successfully in teams, can strike out in new directions, generate ideas and set new benchmarks for everyone to follow.

Even the original and innovative ideas of the National Commission on Education floundered when it came to professional development. New technologies, open learning, access to the wider international community of scholarship, restructured partnerships with universities; all create possibilities. Professional development in the heady first five to seven years of a successful career should in future be celebrated through masters degree qualifications.

Mid-career development could be geared to school or curriculum leadership, two equal and interrelated pathways that might allow those who wished to stay in the classroom and acquire the rewards appropriate to their expertise and seniority. Mentoring, a concept now well established in teacher training, has enormous potential within professional development, particularly where older teachers relinquish the administrative demands of their mid-careers.

But the frameworks have to be flexible and permeable. Teachers, especially women, have uneven working lives. We need staff to have had experience in other fields and teaching badly needs the experience of those who join the profession in their thirties or forties.

The Teacher Training Agency is making a commendable effort to look afresh at professional development. In the run-up to a general election all the parties are looking for ideas. A General Teaching Council may have a crucial role. Systemic reform and rational planning has a place. But creativity, innovation and risk-taking are important too.

Also it needs to be recognised that we must educate everyone and not just some to higher levels. This is reflected in the public and political clamour over funding. All are demanding a new look at the profession. The last thing teachers should tolerate is a self-effacing anonymity. Now is the time for bold ideas and a new direction for the profession. Nothing less will do. Good teaching needs public celebration and affirmation. This article derives from School Inspection edited by Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon published last month by Pitmans at Pounds 14.99 .

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