The pendulum swings against secondary

11th July 2003 at 01:00
RECENTLY I have become aware of a strange new sensation. After spending more time than usual among secondary teachers, I am beginning to feel sorry for them.

This is not normal. I know many admirable people who happen to be secondary teachers, but secondary teachers as a body I keep at arm's length. This is not difficult since they practise an effective form of exclusion on the rest of us. They speak their own language, as in: "I am a physicist. She is a historian."

No one is a teacher. They have their own measurement of time: "I'm available during periods four and five." So what the heck is that, then? And to baffle everyone, they start the academic year in June, three weeks before the summer holiday.

Secondary teachers have also protected their status and power. They used the academic superiority conferred by a degree to command higher salaries, superior funding and more opportunities for promotion.

As new teachers at the start of the 1970s, we were aware of the dominant position of secondary specialists. They didn't call us "colleagues" then but, with the tacit approval of the system's leaders, they would cold-shoulder any proposal for joint working. The problem wasn't even the lack of a degree - it was simply that we, and the age group that we taught, were not rated.

A primary teacher with a degree was paid a fraction of a secondary teacher's salary. Secondary schools provided their new pupils with a "fresh start". Later, S1 became "a period of assessment and orientation" - each time, note the implication that the learning and teaching in the previous seven years counted for nothing.

But the old order no longer holds and secondary teaching is not what it was. The complexities of primary teaching are recognised with degree status and equal pay but more far-reaching has been the feminisation of education and the acknowledgement of multiple intelligences. They have hit hard at the subject-based, only-exams-count ethos of secondary schools.

This past year has seen further attacks on the secondary system. The McCrone fallout has brought the abolition of principal teacher (subject) posts in some areas and the remainder under threat in other authorities.

Then there has been the strong primary showing in the job-sizing exercise.

Despite conservation of salary, many secondary "losers" regard job-sizing as the kick in the teeth which confirms their rapidly dwindling status. In their shoes I would take the same view.

Guidance posts are disappearing, with some authorities exhorting secondary teachers to act more like primary teachers in taking on pastoral responsibility for children. Suddenly, the subject specialist is a threatened species.

My burst of sympathy for secondary colleagues was inspired by a recent conference on curriculum flexibility between P6 and S2. The idea of working in multidisciplinary topics was attractive to secondary management personnel but resisted by subject teachers. Some of their objections were understandable. Where was the evidence that such working would improve S1 and S2 attainment, they asked, and I don't remember a direct answer.

But what was obvious was their lack of confidence in being able to operate outwith their subject boundaries. They do not realise that it is their teaching skills which are important for this age group and that an educated person with well-developed teaching skills should be capable of handling a 13-year-old's maths and history as well as contributing to a multidisciplinary team.

I don't like to see people threatened, even secondary teachers. They can enjoy the future if they find the confidence to operate beyond their subjects. Secondary specialists may have their day again but I wouldn't bet on it. This educational pendulum may be stuck for a long time.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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