Should gongs be bygones?

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Tony Blair's announcement in The Sun that he intends to reward outstanding heads with knighthoods is likely to be greeted by howls of amusement - and some cynicism - on the beaches of Brittany and Cornwall this week. As teachers and their families enjoy a well-earned break from the classroom, few will take seriously the idea that, by giving "sir" a gong, the profession's deep-rooted problem of low morale and status can be resolved.

To many TES readers, perhaps, the honours system belongs to a bygone age when accident of birth determined one's rank in life and deference was the order of the day. History teachers will recall how the rank of baronet was created by James I to swell his coffers. More recently, David Lloyd George, when he was Prime Minister, revived the tradition of selling honours for cash. It can be argued that such a system, where birth and money matter more than merit, has no place in a modern Britain led by a modernising government.

Maybe. But David Blunkett, doing some stout defending on the BBC's Today programme on Tuesday, had a point. If the honours system did not exist, surely one would have to be invented, as is happening in many parts of the world? What is more, he said, while heads who succeeded in turning round failing schools could expect to be made knights or dames, there would be recognition for others too - for "those in the classrooms doing their own ordinary job".

It would be churlish to criticise such a well-intentioned use of an honours system which is clearly overdue for reform. Mr Blair has already said he will not use it to reward services to political parties. There will be no new knights of the shires. Now he has gone a stage further, promising high honours to the best that teaching, nursing and social work have to offer. Public service, thank goodness, is back in fashion and it is right that it should be recognised. After all, it is not so long ago that such famous teaching names as Dames Mary Green and Margaret Miles were honoured for their good work.

But, if the honours system is to survive and prosper, the overhaul should be thorough. If Labour is serious - and wants to be taken seriously in the staffroom - it should start by ending the ridiculous hierarchy whereby civil servants and vice-chancellors can aspire to knighthoods (or at least a CBE), while secondary heads can expect no more than an OBE. Primary heads come lowest in the pecking order, invariably being limited to the junior rank of MBE. Classroom teachers, alas, rarely figure at all.

And if Mr Blunkett is serious about raising morale, he will ensure that the New Year Honours list will contain a healthy crop of primary staff. That would send an important signal that the work being done in primaries - crucial for raising standards - is of equal worth to that done in the comprehensives.

So arise, then, Sir Christopher Cosgrave, head of St John the Divine primary in Lambeth. Three years ago, the school was branded a failure, but is now in the top 100 in the national league tables. But don't stop there. Give the rest of the staff a gong, too. Surely they deserve recognition as well?

Honours, then, can play a part in raising morale and enhancing the status of a profession which has sunk too low in public esteem. Other schemes, including scholarships for outstanding teachers and Oscar-style awards bashes can also help to put a smile back on the faces of teachers.

But, first, two things must happen. Those who are demanding higher educational standards must learn to start praising teachers without at the same time patronising them. More importantly, however, if teachers are really to be rewarded for the job they do, their effort needs to be recognised in hard cash. Otherwise, there will be a diminishing number of good teachers left to compete for those gongs.

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