No reason to heckle

5th May 2006 at 01:00
The loudest call for higher standards must come from the profession itself, writes Geoff Barton

There seems to be a kind of unspoken rota for heckling government ministers. Last year, members of the Association of School and College Leaders were accused of doing so, although in truth they simply muttered rather too audibly in jaw-dropping disbelief at Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's strictures on parent power. This year, it was the Royal College of Nursing which apparently roasted the flu-stricken Patricia Hewitt, herself in need of some serious nursing.

Last week, Mick Brookes, the new general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, complained that Ms Kelly and other government big-wigs refused to turn up. You can see why. Such antics provide cheap and lively copy for newspaper pundits. But for those of us who have chosen to work in the public sector, there may be a more dangerous theme lurking beneath the surface of these annual pantomimes. We are paid, after all, from the public purse. Even those who are teaching in the fledgling flagship academies are paid by the people we see in the cars and buses around us. And there is a real risk that we misjudge the perceptions of these people.

Back in the late 1970s, when he kick-started the process of opening schools up to greater public scrutiny, the then prime minister James Callaghan talked of schools as a "secret garden". In his 1976 speech at Ruskin college, he spoke of "legitimate public concern" about trendy teaching methods and referred to "unease felt by parents and others about the new informal methods of teaching". It was the starting-point for a national curriculum, more centralised testing, and even for Ofsted.

Last week's NAHT proposal to encourage parents to send their children in late for the tests could be a sign of how we have misread that intervening period of public scrutiny and accountability, if we think there's any turning back to the secret garden days. That may also be the aftermath of the RCN's spat with the minister in which delegates mirrored many of the concerns being voiced by teachers.

Cathy Doughty, a senior staff nurse in paediatrics at Brighton and Sussex university hospital trust, was vociferous in publicly voicing concerns to the Secretary of State. She told the Observer's Jo Revell: "We try to do the job we were trained for but are forced to do other jobs to hit other targets, ticking boxes on their forms, and making these the priority."

You could cut and paste that quote into many of the mouths of delegates at any of this season's education conferences. The problem is that all this ignores the views of our customers - the pupils, parents and patients who rely upon us to do a good job. If you've waited half the night at some bleak outpost of an accident and emergency unit, or had to endure two uncomfortable days to get an appointment at your local GP's surgery, you might welcome the fact that targets are being set and monitored to make the experience match our heightened expectations of better service.

Similarly, if you've traipsed around Stalinist parents' evenings at a child's school only to be told, utterly blandly, "If he works harder, he will do better," then you might welcome an education culture that actually places emphasis on giving parents real data.

Knee-jerk reactions to inspection, testing, and curriculum control play into the hands of our critics. We risk giving the impression that the standards agenda is nothing to do with us. Instead, we should be articulating it in our terms. We should show how aspects of the national curriculum demotivate our pupils because of the emphasis on content rather than the essential skills they need as 21st-century citizens.

We should show - with evidence - how the best teaching is rooted in teacher expertise plus good relationships with students, how teachers need time to talk and listen to pupils rather than being the robotic delivery squad of a curriculum that has been pre-packaged like pizza at a central warehouse. We should show how Ofsted's over-reliance on data - too often contradicted by other valid information - can be misleading. And we should argue the case for locally-set collaborative targets showing what a group of schools, working together, aims to achieve.

None of these themes is about ducking the standards agenda, which ought to be central to our sense of professional pride, accountability and desire to do well. Instead, it is showing how that agenda can be reformulated in the interests of higher achievement for pupils (taking achievement in its broadest sense) and better information for parents.

In other words, the most vocal and constructive voices in the argument for "higher standards" should be ours - the voice of the teaching profession itself. It's just the methodology that's different.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Suffolk

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