Politics makes for better professionals;Platform;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Lindsay Paterson reports on a survey of civic activity by Scottish teachers

It used to be said that Scottish communities were led by the minister, the lawyer and the teacher - the local appearance of the famous trinity of cherished Scottish institutions.

As Scotland moves towards a new political democracy next year, what role does the teacher continue to have in civic life? And how does that relate to teachers' professionalism?

To answer these questions a survey was conducted last year of Scottish teachers' civic activism. Nearly 800 responded to a lengthy questionnaire. They were a representative group of all the school sectors and council areas of Scotland, and in secondary schools of the subject spread.

This is the first time anywhere in the UK - and so far as I can detect, anywhere in Europe - that the civic role of educators has been surveyed systematically. So, what did this unique exercise tell us?

First, teachers are still highly active outside their schools, despite the growth of workloads and the incessant denigration of their integrity by politicians.

Nine out of 10 belonged to some kind of civic organisation, ranging from sports clubs and arts societies through voluntary organisations and churches to community groups and political parties. An intrepid one in four were in five or more organisations. This is far higher than the average in surveys of the general population.

What is more, teachers often provide leadership. A strikingly high proportion of members of parliament are educators - a quarter of Labour MPs, for example. Anecdotally, it is frequently claimed that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP could hardly function locally were it not for a teachers taking on the arduous role of branch secretary.

Less visible, but more pervasive in society, is teachers' service to a great variety of organisations. Half of all teachers in the survey had helped to organise social functions for civic groups, half served on committees and a quarter took leadership roles.

What induces teachers to take this civic responsibility? The strongest motive is efficacy: people who believe that civic activism is worthwhile undertake it. And it is remarkable what an optimistic view teachers have of democracy. For example, 51 per cent of them believe they can have an influence on politics if they get involved, and 89 per cent believe that voting in elections is not a waste of time.

The second main influence is professional expertise. For example, teachers of technological subjects provided advice on their technological specialism.

But it was more than that. The higher up the promotion ladder people were, the more active they were in civic groups. People with a postgraduate degree were more active. And, incidentally, reading The TESS regularly was strongly associated with every type of activism.

Despite all this responsibility in such a hard-pressed group, the third influence was simple availability. Most clearly, women with young children were less likely to be leaders than other women or than men.

Equally interesting were some of the things which were not associated with activism.

On the whole, teachers in different sectors did not differ. There was no tendency for the primary school to be a more or less intense hotbed of activism, nor for the independent sector to be less or more engaged with its communities. The only exception was that teachers in Catholic schools were somewhat less inclined to become leaders.

Nor was all this activity dominated by any segment of opinion. Activism ranged across the scale from left to right, from nationalist to unionist and from libertarian to authoritarian.

The only exception was overtly political activities like lobbying government, where people on the left were more common. But this is not surprising after 18 years of Conservative rule.

So teachers do still seem to be highly active in their communities. But what are the effects of all this on professionalism?

Two-thirds reported that their activism had enhanced their professionalism in some way. It provided them with new curricular material, or intensified their knowledge of the community their school served, or simply gave them access to good advice on teaching.

Even the most basic involvement had some of these effects. Thus simply being a member of civic groups could give teachers access to teaching materials. But this happened more when teachers took on administrative tasks. Holding office was also associated with a feeling that effectiveness as a teacher had been strengthened.

But, quite contrary to the current assumptions of politicians and educational managers, political activities contributed most to professionalism.

Teachers who discussed politics in their organisation were most likely to report that their activism had provided advice on their teaching, had given them new curricular materials and had made them aware of the community. It also helped them introduce their students to public affairs and generally improved their effectiveness.

Political activism was more common among people in promoted posts and people who held a master's degree. Thus, political interests are not inimical to professionalism - they are in fact associated with its fullest development.

So Scottish teachers are committed to civic well being. They bring their knowledge of the society into the classroom to good effect. Despite official disparagement, and despite heavy workloads, teachers refuse to narrow their interests to a mechanical interpretation of the job.

When the radically new political environment opens up in 1999, these deep connections will shape the new politics profoundly.

Lindsay Paterson is professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute of Education, Edinburgh. A full report of the survey will be published in the Oxford Review of Education in September.

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