The politics of pressure

19th July 1996 at 01:00
It seems a long time since Lord James Douglas-Hamilton in his considerate way as education minister was refusing to countenance developments that added to teacher workload. Nowadays in addition to curricular changes and an extra layer of assessment (national tests in the first two years of secondary school), there are regular admonitions from the Scottish Office about whole-school planning and individual appraisal. It is little wonder that the holidays could not come soon enough.

Unsurprising, too, are findings from a study in the Borders of stress among teachers. Although the research was limited in scope, it found an overwhelming majority of respondents reporting that they were under pressure. The findings follow those of earlier national studies, and although the director of education for the council is right to suggest that "stress" can be interpreted in a variety of ways, not all of them threatening, there is a need to pay attention to complaints. If teachers think that they are failing to fulfil their own expectations on behalf of pupils, that should at least give ground for concern.

Scottish Borders Council is heeding the message. Teachers are being told not to undertake more than one appraisal a term. Schools will not have to prepare a development plan each session. The emphasis has to be on teaching and learning and not on responding to the priorities of a Government department.

The Audit Unit of the Inspectorate is responsible for some of the impositions on teachers which Borders councillors are prepared to relax. Inspectors argue that coherent planning and staff development increase efficiency and the ability to cope with the pressures of the job. In the best of all possible worlds where there was time to prepare rolling development plans, to tackle areas of school activity in order of need and to keep teachers on their professional toes, the Government's managerial messages would no doubt make sense. But in schools the best laid plans are just time consuming.

Scottish Borders is not about to set the reivers on St Andrew's House. Heeding teachers is the council's concern, not defiance of the Government. But there is a pattern at work across the country in which the demands of ministers are being set aside. The most obvious example is in councils' reluctance to impose national tests in secondaries. Legislation will try to offset such defiance. Other demands will be less easily enforced. Lord James would have asked whether they need to be enforced at all.

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