Still chasing after the magic formula

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore on what political figures are making of our survey of teacher attitudes.

What will make the spring return to the teachers' step? As last week's TES survey of teachers' attitudes showed, neither Tories nor Labour seem to have found the magic recipe.

Indeed, part of the reason for the extensive demoralisation of the profession discovered by TES focus groups was being blamed by politicians for society's ills, on top of teaching larger classes in crumbling schools for too little pay with too many changes.

One party, however, seemed to have the required raising agent. "Isn't it a wonderful endorsement of Liberal Democrat policy?" said Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, of the survey's findings.

He could scarcely contain his delight at the "uncanny" similarity between the "teachers' manifesto" and his party's manifesto for education - although he pointed out that the Lib Dems went further on nursery education, wanting a place for three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds straightaway, not "as resources permit".

But, no doubt thinking of all those parents out there in the voting booths, he was a little reluctant for his party to be described as "the most teacher-friendly". "More education-friendly, that's the critical point, " he said.

And what about the hostility to parent power the survey revealed? Mr Foster stressed that good home-school liaison was essential to a succesful education system but said this should be developed by informing and educating parents rather than imposing home-school contracts as part of the admissions process.

There is, of course, a downside to the teachers' relative warmth towards the Liberal Democrats: the feeling that a vote for them is wasted unless it can be used tactically to oust a Tory incumbent.

"Courage," is Mr Foster's response to that. "If everyone who believed in Liberal Democrat policies actually voted for us, we'd be in power."

The Liberal Democrats would raise Pounds 2 billion for education by an extra penny in the Pounds on income tax. Sir Rhodes Boyson MP, former Tory education minister, says anyone seriously believing any government would raise or spend that kind of money on education is "living in never-never land".

"We're already borrowing all the time with the Tories," he says. "It doesn't actually make the teaching profession credible that they don't understand that."

As for class size, Sir Rhodes casts his eyes eastwards and rolls them. If Japan and Taiwan can manage with classes of 50 and get better results than us I And the issue of crumbling school buildings simply prompts a bout of nostalgia. His first classroom as head of English in a secondary modern in Lancashire was a laboratory, complete with gas and water, so he had had to keep order. "A good teacher," according to Sir Rhodes, "can teach anywhere."

"Too many teachers are now professional moaners," he said. "Instead of saying, "I have to cope - these are the constraints - they assume there is some magic formula I They have to raise their own morale instead of sitting looking at their belly-buttons."

But this former head did express sympathy with the teachers' sense of lost professionalism. There was now far too much inspection and advice, he said, not to mention constant tests. In his first five years of teaching, only one inspector had come to see him and he had stayed one hour.

His Conservative colleague, James Pawsey MP, could understand some of the teachers' disenchantment because of the pace of change, combined with much greater parental involvement and demands. But he professed puzzlement at the teachers' sense of feeling unloved by the Conservatives.

"I've consistently argued in the House of Commons for many years that the majority of teachers in the UK are dedicated both to the profession and to the children in their charge, and I'm chairman of the Conservative backbench committee" he said. That impression had been reflected to some extent in their pay increases.

Demitri Coryton, who chairs the Conservative Education Association, acknowledged the Government had made some mistakes by introducing change without consultation.

The Government had suffered in teachers' eyes because of its espousal of the policies of the ideological right, such as selection.

"This tars the Government with an extremist education policy, which is hugely damaging," Mr Coryton said.

The cost of implementing the "teachers' manifesto", starting with the immediate injection of an extra Pounds 2 billion a year, was dismissed by spokesmen from both main parties as putting it outside the realms of reality. Only the educational Right seems to think the amounts can be found - not by raising taxes but by using existing resources better.

John Redwood MP, former Welsh Secretary, told The TES an extra Pounds 2 billion was "the kind of money LEAs up and down the country could find from their own budgets if they wished". But they were deliberately misdirecting it into schemes like road humps or into central administration.

"There is no need to have classes of more than 30 at the moment given the amount of money given to local education authorities," he said. "If there are bigger classes, it's because of very bad management by LEAs or the governors of the schools."

Mr Redwood trusted, however, that the survey had misrepresented teacher opinion. He hoped there were still many highly motivated teachers like those he found in his constituency.

A similar approach to spending was taken by Sheila Lawlor, who runs the think tank Politeia.

"It's very straightforward," she said. "Every school should be made an independent state trust and the full complement of funding should go straight to the school to pay the head and teachers and determine its own class sizes. At the moment it doesn't happen because the money is diverted to the local bureaucracy."

"I don't blame the teachers for being demoralised," she added. "It's the result of decades of a collectivist, state-planned education system, where their careers, their teaching, their very employment have been determined by education theorists and officials. " "If schools had greater independence and more money, I think teachers would rise to the challenge, I really do," said Dr Lawlor.

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