The meaning of collegiality

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

In previous articles, I have drawn attention to the way in which certain terms in education achieve prominence and become important elements in professional discourse. One such term is "collegiality", which has come to the fore following the teachers' agreement. Management and union sides on the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers share the view that collegiality is at the heart of professionalism.

They define the concept in terms of a number of key characteristics: the quality of relationships that exist within and between the levels of the education system; a climate of trust extending from the Scottish Executive to local authorities and schools; respect for the views of staff and opportunities for them to engage in decision-making; a reflective, co-operative approach to the processes of negotiation; commitment to shared values.

The real challenge, of course, is translating these principles into operational terms. Here it is worth drawing a distinction between soft and tough collegiality. The former does not amount to much more than feel-good rhetoric -a climate of niceness, in which care is taken not to cause offence. This may lead to the avoidance of sensitive issues, on the grounds that it would not be collegial to raise them.

Such an interpretation would do little to enhance professionalism. It would encourage a closed shop mentality in which the professionals (managers and teachers) would control the agenda, with little opportunity to take account of the perspectives of pupils and parents. The culture of the police, which over the years has offered many examples of professionals closing ranks against outsiders who may have legitimate questions to ask, should provide a chastening example of how not to proceed. Similar tendencies can be seen among lawyers and doctors.

Tough collegiality, on the other hand, involves being prepared to ask hard questions, recognising that it is not enough for professionals to be accountable only to each other, and that others will have a legitimate interest in the quality of service that is provided. This has implications for both management and unions. Union representatives might have to respond more seriously to questions about staffroom cynics who routinely say no to every proposal, or about colleagues perceived to be underperforming. School managers might have to be more robust with local authorities in responding to concerns about staffing levels or the state of school buildings.

It is worth asking why collegiality has come to the fore at this time.

Shifts in discourse are rarely accidental - they nearly always have an underlying purpose. In this case, part of the answer has to do with the reconfiguration of the teaching force, with a move away from pedagogic patterns determined by autonomous individuals to a more flexible style of working involving teamwork and the use of support staff.

While this undoubtedly has some benefits, it also carries risks. A soft version of collegiality might simply produce bland consensus that lacks intellectual bite and professional rigour. It might also serve to marginalise the teacher of independent spirit who is prepared to challenge orthodoxy.

How often do we hear the complaint that teaching today is lacking in "characters" and that it is dominated by people who know all the approved answers but who have never thought deeply about them? Collegiality that is too cosy leads to uniformity and discourages diversity.

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