Solving society's problems is not our job

10th July 1998 at 01:00
WHO earns the money to pay my monthly cheque? Most teachers do not ask the question. As a nation, our capacity for wealth creation is diminishing in comparison to those we compete with. Too many educators fail to understand the fundamental interdependence between themselves, the "citizen creators" and those who are the "wealth creators". Teachers are the country's citizen-makers - it is they who must provide the next generation of citizens and workers to create the nation's wealth.

The recent National Association of Head Teachers conference sought to resist the Government's firm commitment to raising levels of literacy and numeracy in the primary sector. However, far too many 11-year-olds are unable to access the key stage 3 curriculum because of their poor literacy and numeracy.

As a nation we compare unfavourably with our economic competitors in these respects. The Government is right to impose these requirements upon us. Blaming the Government for its unreasonable demands is a cop-out. Teachers must face the challenge of our highly diversified task and not work as though we were still living in the 1950s, or indeed the 1850s.

And yet teachers have never worked harder, been more stressed, nor more anxious or more wondering how to struggle against deteriorating odds.

During my many years of working as a teacher in various roles, the biggest and most challenging change has not been the arrival of comprehensive schools, GCSE, the national curriculum, key stage testing, league tables, local management of schools or target setting - hugely demanding and challenging as these all have been.

No, the biggest change has been in values, in the young, in their parents and in society: the verbal and physical violence to each other and especially to those in authority (including teachers), the awful bullying, the often awful levels of materialism and self-interest, the horrendous experiences of some families' lives; the insistence on "me first and me last", whether it be from students or indeed from their parents who have lost control.

Consequent upon this biggest change is society's demand of us as teachers to attempt somehow to work with the young, socialise them, help them to develop high levels of relevant skills for training, employment and citizenship, support them in the nightmare experiences of rejection, abuse and violence that frequently confront some, for which we have no training and for which our schools are not designed.

In recent years, at the start of each autumn term I have been presented with extremely complex issues that have emerged during the summer break. They can involve families or the community, but parents clearly assume that these are somehow the head's responsibility, and that I have "magical" skills to resolve their difficulties.

Parents and other community members too often expect teachers to have the skills, time and responsibility for addressing these entrenched social problems, which arise from dysfunctional families and communities barren of values and self-confidence.

Government and the wealth creators, however, expect teachers to make sure that all students achieve the highest levels of excellence. After all, it is for this that we are trained and employed. Many teachers spend up to 20 per cent of their working week attempting to solve society's problems, in order to give all their students the chance to learn.

The style and structure of schools must be radically altered. We have for too long clung on to the 19th-century model of schools and schooling and of how teachers work. We need 21st-century structures and contracts for teachers if we are to make sense of 21st-century learning for the young.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School, Oxfordshire.

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