Room to manoeuvre

6th October 2006 at 01:00
A lot can be learned from history, especially if it is an interesting lesson, writes Barbara Bauld

Many teachers will be familiar with calls for self-reflection from educational managers and policymakers. As a secondary school history teacher of nearly 40 years' experience, it has often occurred to me that in a hectic secondary, survival is likely to be uppermost in a teacher's mind.

But since I have retired, I have had more time for reflection.

Central to achieving anything in the classroom, as all experienced teachers know and probationers are about to find out, is being able to motivate a class. Keeping pupils interested is the key.

What we couldn't know then, however, was how little control teachers would come to have in choosing content and methodology, as our policymakers assumed more control of these matters in the classroom. Self-reflection is always profitable, but it could be more productive if teachers had wider scope in these matters.

Obviously, teachers still motivate but when, as the classroom teacher, you have limited choice over content and methodology, it's harder. The strength of the 5-14 programme was that it allowed flexibility, so that interesting courses could be devised. Eager pupils, encouraged by careful choices of topic, text and methodology, would opt for history at the end of second year, only to be bored stiff after two months of Standard grade.

Yet although many people questioned the viability of Standard grade, the format of structuring courses, in much the same fashion as Standard grade, was adopted for future initiatives and dictated not just what a teacher could teach, but how. Until they are allowed more control in matters of policy which relate to content and methodology, a teacher's ability to teach effectively is compromised.

Although intended to provide opportunity for all, Higher Still may not, in time, be judged better. It has failed to provide an alternative training route for non-academic young people at school, while it has reduced the rigour of the academic element. Large numbers of our tradesmen come from abroad, where practical skills are still taught and valued. We have accorded little status to these skills in our educational system, which lacks the practical and vocational element that characterises the more successful systems in Europe. Perhaps Jack McConnell's proposed skills academies will come to the rescue.

In addition, traditional subjects such as history are in danger of being devalued, because they cannot be easily reduced to the measurement of successive competencies. A "one pattern fits all" philosophy does not enable the flexibility to allow individual subjects to be taught in the manner that suits them best.

A child asked my colleague: "When are we going to do some 'real' history, Sir?" Interesting content, which pupils perceive as meaningful, motivates at all levels and best teaches the skills so necessary in a democracy to protect our civil liberties - memorising facts, weighing them, using them to make a reasoned argument. Teachers need more scope to teach these skills in the way and with the content that they know motivates best.

People usually work more wholeheartedly and effectively where they are allowed control over what they are doing and perceive themselves to be trusted.

Business speaker Sir John Harvey Jones was quoted in January this year as saying, of Horatio Nelson's leadership abilities, that he trusted those under his command to make their own judgments, following general direction in strategy from him. He recognised the fact that "endless detailed command is enormously expensive and ineffective". Instead, he openly valued and placed trust in what he knew to be the formidable skills, capabilities and experience of his captains and their crews by, literally, giving them room to manoeuvre.

It was a philosophy of management that seemed to prove successful and Sir John suggested that there were lessons to be learned. From an interesting history lesson, there often are.

Barbara Bauld taught history and modern studies

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