Step boldly forward the real leaders

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Edi Stark sets the scene for her radio series and asks teachers to give themselves a pat on the back.

"IN MANY ways, I think the work done by a teacher is more important than the work done by a politician." In a recent radio interview, John Reid, Secretary of State for Scotland, talked about the death of his wife Cathie, a primary school head whose profession had been instrumental in giving him the opportunity to embrace a kinder life than the physical labour practised by his forebears from the mining villages of Lanarkshire.

His assertion regarding the superior influence of teachers over politicians was left unchallenged by the interviewer, me. I had concluded during the exchange that a programme made for a Scottish audience need not query the high currency of school teachers as our liberators. We live in a country which has long taken this fact for granted. Or do we?

As Radio Scotland's education programme Making the Grade embarks on its fourth series, it is clear the BBC believes education will attract an audience and that Scots care about how young people are being prepared for work, life and further education.

During the past couple of years, I have spent a great deal of time researching and recording documentaries about prisoners. Men who have murdered and women who have committed petty crimes, more often than not, share a background of social deprivation and, critically, low educational achievement. Violence, rather than qualifications, became a means of getting respect.

Women, often from a background of poverty and abuse, talked of dodging school because it seemed pointless and boring. They'd be having babies soon and taking a battering for their partner's sense of disempowerment.

Scotland is fast developing an underclass devoid of aspirations. Lanarkshire miners saw a future for their bairns, but in Glasgow's Pollok, heroin is replacing endeavour, hope and self-esteem. Drugs education in the classroom must also take account of why people inject class-A drugs. But drugs education goes far beyond the one-off lesson on substance abuse. People take drugs for the simple reason that it makes them feel better about themselves.

They have a purpose and a sense of belonging. Drugs are not necessarily used for recreation alone but to block out feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.

I look at my own children with a confidence that they are self-assured people who are learning how to make choices. They have the courage given to them by encouragement and expectation from family, friends and school.

Expectation. That taboo word I once equated with the debilitation of pressure.

I have changed my mind. I have looked around, met and interviewed people who exemplify great success and chronic failure and conclude self-confidence and motivation count for as much s academic ability. It's time to recognise this as the true test of standards in the classroom.

Starting at university, I was shy and self-conscious but, within a matter of weeks, it became apparent that other students suffered insecurity so incapacitating they were unable to speak in class. I'd been belted in primary school for talking in class. But questioning opinion and belief had been lauded at home.

Here I was, at university, no more competent than others, but able to break free from the shackles of not wanting to appear big-headed.

I began to speak up in tutorial, mostly because I could not bear the embarrassing silence. What is that reticence about? Why have we found it to be more prevalent in urban schools than island schools? As we discovered when recording Making the Grade, parents, pupils and teachers have plenty to say but the biggest challenge is getting them to say it.

Primary pupils are fantastic at talking but secondary schools have far to go. And it can't be blamed entirely on hormones.

It's time for teachers to indulge in that unScottish trait, the pat on the back. It doesn't take a politician to tell you that teaching is the key to the future, that flair and charisma in the classroom inspire children, that, as an educationalist, you are a leader in a literal sense. A profession which allows itself to be beleaguered does the next generation no favours.

I have been honoured to meet many energetic enthusiasts who still believe in the job and I've been disappointed, but not surprised, to meet a few disaffected and disillusioned teachers.

While I understand the profession is undermined and underpaid, I'm mindful of the words of the new BBC director general, Greg Dyke, who, in his introductory speech to employees, was supportive and encouraging but ended with the salutary advice: "If you don't like it, please leave. Disenchantment is contagious."

In the last magazine series, we covered school life ranging from the debate over Higher Still to talking to the community policeman accompanying more than 200 pupils to Alton Towers. We heard about garden planting schemes in Perthshire, extra curricular stress-busting for teachers and got tips for school-leavers on interview techniques.

In the next series, drugs education and social deprivation will be high on the agenda and we'll keep tabs on those politicians.

Of course teachers have become a collective scapegoat, blamed for all ills. Of course it's often a thankless, under-rated job. But some of us remain indebted to and respectful of the real leaders.

On a bad day, get a grip and be grateful. You could be a member of the media.

Making the Grade, Radio Scotland 92-95FM from Tuesday, April 4, 4pm. Repeated Wednesday at 22.10. Women Behind Bars, BBC Radio 4, Monday 8pm.

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