Pressure - support = teacher's despair;Opinion

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
Support with pressure is at the heart of classroom craft. Michael Barber's eloquent advocacy has ensured that it is also a founding principle of the Government's education policy in practice. Yet it is not a simple issue.

Getting the mix right is sometimes elusive, but is key to the delivery of Tony Blair and David Blunkett's dream of transformed educational outcomes.

Sometimes Mr Blunkett must despair - but then so do the teachers. The Government will point to many improvements, such as extra expenditure, reduced class sizes, and the prospect of a General Teaching Council. Given that, why should teachers complain of yet more pressure?

What does the teacher's classroom experience reveal about the subtle mixture of support and pressure? Each morning 30 youngsters bring in different sets of baggage and the teacher immediately displays a variety of positive techniques as she silently marks the register. ``Did the match go well Shane?...''. ``Any chance of you giving me a hand with the music at dinner time Sian?...''. Absences and lateness are not the occasion for confrontation and shaming, but for private cajoling and advice.

Successful schools rely on every tutor achieving a similar start. Lessons are alive with questions carefully sequenced, expertly ordered and distributed as the confidence of individuals and groups is skilfully built. The familiar but expert mix of story, questions and conversation represents the art and the science of teaching. Pressure and support is thus the teacher's stock in trade.

Management experts advocate a balance between two approaches: "problem solving'' and "appreciative enquiry''. The first focuses on the negative features of an organisation and the second on the good things. A judicious, but ever-changing kaleidoscope of both is what is needed.

There is, however, a third more dangerous management model "ensuring compliance''. It has four steps. First, you know what the solution is and you prescribe it. Secondly, you regulate the implementation. Thirdly, there is tough inspection to ensure that everyone follows the system. Finally, deviants are publicly punished.

Some would say that current OFSTED inspections typify this model. Inspection reports which summarise only problems as key issues inevitably drive out innovation and imagination besides inducing a sense of helplessness, resignation and overload.

Governments driven by the pervasive media and political imperative can so easily appear to be applying pressure when support is intended. The literacy hour, for example, provides excellent materials and fool-proof in-service training - but the single solution imposed as external change could diminish teachers' professionalism.

In Birmingham we shall regard the literacy hour as a chance to harness the researcher in all our teachers. We shall examine how different interpretations of the same approach affect outcomes. We hope this will help teachers to see the scheme as a learning and research opportunity which brings with it excellent materials.

Quangos or non-ministerial departments, such as OFSTED rather than the Government, itself seem to cause most of the problems. Recently even the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority lapsed when introducing 10 per cent spot checks on the administration of key stage 2 tests. Birmingham is surely not alone in thinking these a gross insult to teachers' integrity?

Such impediments to progress need to be dealt with and ways found to release teachers' energy to respond to the legitimate pressure for higher pupil expectations. The standards task force is there to add value to the educational enterprise which is the defining characteristic of the Blair Government.

Just as there is one group looking at good practice and the means of disseminating it (TES, May 15) so there is another chaired by Lord Puttnam looking to match the pressure on teachers with real support. Ideas therefore on reforms to the system and initiatives to help would be welcome.

Tim Brighouse is Birmingham's chief education officer and joint vice-chairman of the Government's standards task force.

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