Smart people play doctors and paramedics

12th December 2003 at 00:00
In my very first issue as New Statesman editor in May 1998, I published - to many people's horror - an article by Margaret Hodge, then chair of the education select committee. It was thought that Hodge's ministerial ambitions were likely to be satisfied in the near future - as indeed they were, with an appointment to the Department for Education. Her opinions caused a minor stir, and were regarded as at least partially government kite-flying.

"Why we need fewer teachers" was the headline. Hodge argued that teachers "should become an elite force backed up by trained assistants". New technology - the internet, interactive computer programmes - made it unnecessary for all classes to be led by a fully trained teacher at all times. Support staff would supervise pupils at their computer terminals, do photocopying and also help with one-to-one tuition and marking.

Schools were then in a recruitment crisis and Hodge argued that trying to keep up teacher numbers was a losing battle. "We must recognise the real possibility that not enough high-quality people will ever want to be teachers."

The only way to continue to attract really smart people - and to give teaching similar status to, say, medicine or law - was to cut the numbers and pay much higher salaries to the remainder. There need be no drop in standards and no change in the adult-child ratio if lower-paid and less highly-trained support staff took on the more routine work.

Anybody who remembered this article would have been unsurprised by last week's TES disclosure that Whitehall officials are now pondering how to make the case for cutting teacher numbers to pay for more support staff.

This has been the new Labour agenda all along. I do not understand why ministers try to deny it.

I found Hodge's argument cogent and convincing at the time, and still do.

It is a reminder of the early days of Tony Blair's premiership when public service reform meant something sensible and coherent. Here was an example of how we could benefit from a government that was both Labour and new: Labour in the sense that it would do its best for public services, new in the sense that it would not be daunted by union opposition or by doctrinaire objections to introducing two tiers of staff to the classroom.

Alas, Blair has been side-tracked more and more into the belief that privatisation and contracting out are the keys to public service reform: a position that is in itself doctrinaire and slightly dotty. The civil servants' paper reflects this muddle. It is at least as much concerned with a more "flexible" teaching force - brought in from agencies on short-term contracts - as it is with the proper staffing for schools. We are not likely to get the high-status profession that Hodge advocated if teachers are to be casual employees, treated as though they were building-site workers.

The way we organise schools - children in classes of between 20 and 40, all taken by a single qualified teacher, with no other adult present - did not change for more than a century. It was foolish to think this style of organisation was immutable. In a fairly short time, we have left behind the days when teachers' unions would accept no other human body in the classroom. I think we shall go further. We already accept that just increasing the number of responsible adults in schools can have benefits, even if they are not all qualified professionals. Perhaps we shall eventually decide that teachers should be more like doctors - giving directions, laying down treatment programmes, performing the really difficult tasks - while the equivalents of nurses and paramedics offer the day-to-day care. But Labour at present, I fear, is incapable of getting us there.

Letters 27

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