'Mad trendies'who let the sunshine in

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Jean Anderson recalls how a fresh approach changed school ambience

As a member of the "New Breed of Teachers" (to quote the headline of my first contribution to The TESS), recruited through the Government's special scheme to help deal with the teacher shortage of the 1970s, when the paper was still in its infancy, I have seen many changes in the classroom - most of them for the better.

In the early days as a pale and trembling English teacher, beginning my career at Cathkin High school (domain of Dr James Munn OBE, shortened to Jim Oabby by the pupils), the approach was very much of a "them and us" nature.

It had been instilled at the colleges of education that we must cultivate an image of a remote person whom the pupils must look up to and obey. If they did not conform, there was always the belt to show them the error of their ways.

Happily, the situation was rapidly changing. The "trendy Seventies" saw an influx of teachers with experience outside teaching bring a fresh approach to classroom management. The belt was being used less and less and when it was finally banned in the early 1980s, only those who had relied on it to maintain discipline missed it.

Secondary schools began to catch up with the primaries' approache to learning and teaching, which made the classroom a place where pupils felt valued and enjoyed learning at their own pace.

This was due mostly to the Primary Memorandum, which helped promote the idea that not all children learn in the same way. Many secondary teachers began to make their classrooms child-friendly places, with posters, group work and wall displays. A different atmosphere was permeating at least S1 and S2 , but these brave souls were frowned upon by some colleagues who referred to them as "mad trendies".

The need for revolution in secondary classrooms had become apparent with the raising of the leaving age, followed by the Munn and Dunning reports and the introduction of Standard grade, the Revised Higher and the 5-14 guidelines. Computers also began to acquire a position of power in the classroom, along with parent power. There was also a growing awareness that the media could no longer be kept out of education.

It became common to see pupils busily taking notes as they watched television programmes, from Polanski's Macbeth to history programmes to soap operas.

The first influence for change was Rosla. The raising of the school leaving age, although introducing the idea that young people should be encouraged to talk about issues relevant to their lives, was a challenge which, many agreed, was not met as well as it could have been.

It spawned the non-certificate or pre-vocational classes that were a nightmare for teachers and a crusher of self-esteem in the pupils. It generated an epidemic of poor "literature", which assumed that non-academic pupils must only be interested in books about shop-lifting, broken homes and gangs.

A more positive force for change were the Munn and Dunning reports. Their insights into learning and teaching and the way we use assessment laid the ground for Standard grade which gave pupils pride in their work and a sense of achievement. It eradicated the non-certificate label from the school vocabulary, introduced the concept of "fair" copying and put an end to "ghetto" classes. It also recognised the importance of talk in and out of the classroom, creating a more interactive environment for both teachers and pupils.

Another, not altogether welcome, change was the 5-14 guidelines.

Suddenly, teachers who had been cosy in their primary school environment had to consider whether what they did was relevant to the following stages of a child's education. At the same time, secondary teachers who had little idea of what went on in primary had to find out.

The resulting co-operation affected classroom management on both sides.

Primary teachers became more aware of the demands of S1 and S2, and their secondary colleagues began to realise that there had to be a clear link between what they taught and what the children already knew.

Just when we thought we had it sussed, along came technology to force us to rearrange our classrooms as well as our attitudes. The teacher sometimes became the pupil when computers took their place in the classroom.

Media studies were often sneered at by those who were unable to see that it is as important for young people to have the media demystified as it is to be computer literate.

Another change which influenced the position of the teacher in the classroom was the growth of "parent power". It did have its good side, drawing on a valuable resource for help with school trips and other activities. But it may also have been the biggest culprit in destroying classroom discipline by encouraging pupils to appeal to their parents against any ruling by the teacher, and in too many cases be backed up in refusing to obey.

I tutor privately now and have willing pupils and co-operative parents to make my job a pleasure. I miss the classroom situation, but I do not envy teachers who have had their autonomy taken from them, have the appalling league tables hanging over them and have to administer NABs as if they were some kind of nasty medicine pupils have to swallow.

Sadly, my harassed colleagues still involved in classroom teaching tell me that all the fun and enthusiasm have been pushed out by that horrible word assessment. The mantra "education, education, education" should perhaps be replaced by "statistics, statistics. statistics". Oh for the happy classroom of the mad, trendy Seventies and Eighties.

Jean Anderson is a teacher.

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