Look abroad for class on shaping the future

1st June 2001 at 01:00
The Lycee Voltaire in Paris, where I was a language assistant in the Sixties, had thousands of pupils and hundreds of teachers. There was little sense of a school community, nor indeed of collective pastoral responsibility for pupils' welfare. Teachers taught their classes and then disappeared until their next lesson was due. They could do their preparation and marking at home, or pursue further studies at the Sorbonne during the intervening hours.

The nearby metro station, P re Lachaise, was busy throughout the day with pilgrims to the graves of the famous in the eponymous cemetry and with teachers and pupils emerging from lessons at this gargantuan seat of secondary education. It was rare to meet a member of staff in the "salle des professeurs", which was essentially a work base, but I had many stimulating conversations with colleagues in local cafes and on the metro.

It was the era of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, with wagons of riot police on every corner of the Latin Quarter, and this politicisation of education also insinuated itself into the secondary school system. The "syndicat de lyceens" or pupils' union would occasionally bare its teeth and rattle its chains at the school authorities. Teachers reacted to this scenario with bemused detachment and certainly did not consider that it was incumbent on them to sort it out. There were separate agencies for dealing with discipline as there were for finance and personnel.

This steady focus on the core business of teaching had undoubted attractions but it created establishments of a character quite alien to the Scottish tradition of ethos and pastoral care.

In the current debate about the ramifications of the McCrone proposals, schools in mainland Europe are extolled for valuing the professionalism of teachers, who may clock up fewer hours of class contact and are free to come and go as they please. This presupposes an entirely different interpretation of the teacher's role and assumes the existence of discrete agencies to field non-pedagogical matters.

The professional associations are understandably churning out papers to secure for their members the best possible interpretaton of the McCrone proposals during this uneasy negotiating phase. Authorities meanwhile are adopting an equivocal posture to avoid provocation or confrontation. The critical question is whether the final outcome will be to the benefit of children and parents of the future.

It is becoming evident that the shape of the teachers' week, the promotion structure, and even payment of teachers for particular duties may vary significantly from school to school and that local bargaining is the agenda for the future. While particular solutions to individual problems are welcome in the spirit of devolved school management, this could produce idiosyncratic models of school governance, unhealthy competition between schools and disruptive and unnecessary movement of staff, who may perceive a more favourable deal down the road.

At the moment, you can become an assistant principal teacher with the right to succeed to chartered teacher status in Midlothian but not in Edinburgh. Next year there may be a different agreement on the 35-hour week in Holy Rood from in Portobello, less than a mile away.

Given this emphasis on school-by-school decision making, it is incredible that headteachers will have no place on the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. So much for the concept of collegiate working.

It is inconceivable that the successor to the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, which produced an annual exhibition of entrenched conservatism, could have nobody on board who is responsible for managing a school. The absence of a school management perspective at national level may produce outcomes, which match the interests of the totality of teachers but present difficulties for the day-to-day management of a school.

I am confident that Holy Rood can cope with this tangle of uncertainty as it is blessed with a highly professional staff, most of whom exceed the 35-hour week. To find out how to manage the myriad responsibilities which will, according to McCrone, no longer form part of teachers' responsibilities, I'll maybe have to give Lycee Voltaire a ring.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh


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