Let's stop the teacher-bashing;The Sweeney;School Management

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Never again will I suggest in this column that the Sweeneys are out too often in the evenings. Some burglar has broken into our house, and all TES readers are suspects.

In fact, more teachers are trying to break out than in. The annual call for early retirement volunteers, which has just appeared, never fails to attract a flood of eager applicants. The same rush of candidates is not apparent for advertised teaching posts. As a profession, teachers feel undervalued, and the nation's response to the publication of Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools has done little to raise their morale.

The report itself is a very professional and readable piece of work. It is a pity the vast majority of the confraternity of scribblers will never get beyond the press release. Teachers have confidence in the judgment of HMI, whose findings are presented clearly and concisely. Strengths are carefully balanced against weaknesses, and both are covered in impressive detail.

The senior chief inspector starts his statement with: "This is a mainly positive report and I congratulate those . . . who have achieved so much." In Scotland on Sunday, this was translated as "last week's damning schools inspectorate report" in a prelude to a vitriolic onslaught on the teaching profession. Such sentiments were reflected across the media in varying degrees of gleeful vindictiveness.

The tone of the Government's press release did little to help. The report lists leadership by secondary heads as a key strength in 85 per cent of schools. No reference is made to this positive finding, and the press release simply states: "HMI found important weaknesses in the leadership of 15 per cent of secondary schools." This grudging reluctance to acknowledge the ability and dedication of the majority of headteachers is difficult to comprehend.

Our most challenging task as headteachers lies in motivating staff and pupils to believe in themselves and in their ability to succeed. It is a fundamental tenet of good management to build on people's strengths, rather than focus on their weaknesses.

If I went into Holy Rood at the start of the session and announced that 15 per cent of the staff were ineffective, I would hardly expect this message to motivate the troops for the year ahead. Perhaps it is not only headteachers who need to learn a little more about management.

The press release invited a negative response and so it came to pass. I have to confess I am shocked at some of the report's findings. Teaching and learning was deemed very good in only 10 per cent of primary schools and 15 per cent of secondary departments. This is based on systematic evaluation and inspection, and is difficult to challenge. It does not square with my experience as I go around my school and its local primaries.

Teachers are hard-working professionals who give of their best in increasingly difficult circumstances. I reckon they are of far higher quality than they were 25 years ago, when I started teaching.

Lazy incompetent teachers are like athlete's foot, a constant irritation and difficult to shift, but they are a small minority. I support the Government's plans to remove poor teachers, as they provide a ready excuse for vilification of an entire profession of hard-working people.

Amid the week's bloodletting, few voices have been raised in defence of teachers and heads. Michael O'Neill, representing directors of education, unequivocally declared: "You do not get improvements by bashing teachers." He is absolutely right, and I hope somebody up there is listening.

It is in the present Government's interest to develop a constructive working partnership with a highly motivated teaching force. Its opportunity to do this is now. Teachers and headteachers have been toiling for years to raise attainment and improve the quality of their schools in spite of cuts in funding, problems with buildings and social decay. It is by no means a New Labour.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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