The 'scunner factor' is a force for change

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
I WAS heartened by the outcome of the elections to the Scottish Parliament, not because I hold a brief for any particular party but because the opportunity for new voices to be heard is surely good for democracy. The successes of the Greens, the Socialists and the independents should help to ensure that the traditional political establishment in Scotland will have to do better in future.

The BBC's excellent Scottish political correspondent, Brian Taylor, said that the result was explicable in terms of the "scunner factor". The electorate were fed up with the tired cliches, empty rhetoric and dishonoured promises of the "old guard" and wanted to register their protest. There must be lessons here for the world of education.

Notwithstanding some welcome post-devolution improvements to the way in which policy is formulated and developed, there still exists an identifiable leadership class which controls the educational agenda and assumes it knows best.

It includes inspectors, directors of education and leading figures in bodies such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Learning and Teaching Scotland. The mandarins of the Scottish Executive act as behind-the-scenes puppet masters. (A mandarin has been defined as someone who is small, fruity and gives you the pip.) The consequence is that the currency of educational ideas is regulated by a bureaucratic elite whose values derive from worn-out management theory rather than any coherent set of values and principles.

This helps to explain the "scunner factor" among large sections of the teaching profession who have ceased to trust those who purport to lead them. They feel that the decision-makers are seriously out of touch with what is happening at school and classroom levels.

So what can be done? Is there any educational equivalent to the verdict given by the electorate to the political establishment? To be effective, it needs to be more than an empty gesture of contempt. It also needs to involve more than the 50 per cent who bothered to vote on May 1.

Teachers need to think carefully about who represents them on committees, working groups and the GTC. One of the many ironies of teachers'

organisations is that they manage to project themselves as politically radical but, when it comes to professional matters, they are often deeply conservative. Witness the performance of many Educational Institute of Scotland stalwarts on the GTC. The way in which alleged activists become pillars of establishment respectability would make an interesting cultural study - as would patterns of reward in the so-called Honours List.

All this suggests that teachers who really want to change things may need to go outwith the normal channels and create their own arenas for protest.

One example is the Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature which, through a well-organised campaign and the dedicated efforts of John Aberdein and the late Tony McManus, managed to get its concerns about Higher Still taken seriously. With the election of Dr Jean Turner to the Scottish Parliament, "single issue" politics is now with us on a national scale.

There is no reason why something similar could not succeed within the teaching profession. But for that to happen will require acts of individual and collective courage, as well as persuasiveness and determination in advancing the particular cause. And be under no illusion. The "old guard" will fight back.

In order to retain power, they will not hesitate to resort to the "dirty tricks" department when the going gets rough. It won't be easy but, if the alternative is more "autodrivel" from the great and good, it's worth a try.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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