Mission for special agents in schools;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Government policies cast teachers as classroom field agents with little room to innovate, but James Porter questions whether this is healthy for democracy

THERE is no doubting teachers' anger and frustration over the "command-and-control" policies and the bureaucratic overload oppressing schools. While deep concern about the Green Paper gained headteachers an address from the Prime Minister, it was clear that the Government was "not for turning".

As the school year ended teachers were left to reflect on earlier attempts to modify proposals which have been largely unsuccessful. Their views are dismissed as special pleading and research that questions the validity of Government pronouncements tends to be ridiculed by senior officials.

What is clear is that in the past 25 years, the country has moved from having the most independent and professionally-based school system in the world to one of the most controlled and centralised.

The determination of government to diminish the independence of schools and take over all the key aspects of education was signalled by the Conservatives in the 1988 Education Act. In spite of the changed rhetoric, the authoritarian thrust has intensified under New Labour and its ranks of political advisers. The result is devaluation of many creative aspects of learning - reducing opportunities for innovation and downgrading the school as an independent and democratic institution.

Apart from the depressing effect of targets - often unrealistic for particular schools and classes - the narrow definition of academic achievement has another outcome. By constantly insisting on competitive grading and comparison, the Government encourages the fallacy that "what cannot be measured easily is not really important". It is harder for teachers to use a variety of strategies to motivate children and to give them the opportunity to achieve excellence in ways that are not in one of the Government's target zones.

It is now necessary to challenge the whole stance of the Government towards schools. Basing policies on a flawed free market ideology, often pursued with arrogance and disdain for the accumulated experience of the teaching profession, ministers and their politically-appointed "experts", appear to see teachers simply as agents for the delivery of these policies. The ludicrous setting of arbitrary performance targets to be "hit" at specific dates clearly has much more to do with the timing of the next election than with educational reality.

If a school is to be judged on the same basis as a shop delivering products designed and approved elsewhere, then the proposed training of teachers as fieldworkers trying to meet head-office targets is understandable. If the role of schools is defined as following a centrally-approved curriculum to be taught by imposed methodologies, then the activities of the Office for Standards in Education and its leader must be defended at all costs.

However, the idea of a school as an independent and organic institution, requiring basic freedoms, is central to the idea of a robust democracy. Educational policy by assertion and edict goes against the democratic process. The present crisis in schools comes from a fundamental change in the way the Government regards education, with central bodies dictating what, when, where and how a particular skill or body of information should be communicated.

Such an approach is seriously at odds with the findings on the needs of societies. The capacity of people to cope with the extraordinary rate and uncertainty of national and global change is certainly not helped by heavy-handed bureaucratic control. Rather, people need encouragement by varied and creative institutions within society.

The trend of the past two decades for de-professionalising teaching should stop, and schools that are truly part of their community and reflect its concerns should be encouraged. Schools need the power to act to help the children they are responsible for. Re-schooling rather than de-schooling is required.

As the new term begins, we should acknowledge the social and political significance of the school. Current events elsewhere underline the fact that in the absence of independent and vigorous institutions, societies become less democratic.

Valuable as it can be, a course in citizenship is not an adequate substitute for attendance at an institution that has genuine independence. Enabling schools to be creative centres for democracy should be one of the main tasks of a democratically-elected government.

"Reschooling and the Global Future" by James Porter, was recently published by Symposium Books.

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