Strategies for the lone specialist;Subject of the week;Social sciences

19th February 1999 at 00:00
How can the often isolated teacher of social sciences assure his or her professional development? Tony Breslin advises

The social sciences have had their detractors over the years. Following Margaret Thatcher's often quoted assertion that "there is no such thing as society", the national curriculum ignored them and advertisers and journalists mocked them as the "ologies we all love to hate".

The tide, though, is finally changing. Social scientists are emerging in a range of senior positions in universities, think-tanks and corporate life; social exclusion is dominating the political agenda, and issues on "education for citizenship" and "preparation for adult life" are playing a central role in the national curriculum review. Meanwhile, the social sciences remain popular at A and degree level and make a critical input to general national vocational qualification programmes in areas such as health and social care, and leisure and tourism.

However, in schools, and to a lesser degree colleges, social scientists are still often isolated figures working in small, sometimes one-person departments, excluded by virute of their aca-demic expertise from the classic career progression paths. Moreover, teacher training remains dominated by a commitment to the traditional subjects of the grammar school curriculum (in the recent report on Education for Citizenship, Professor Bernard Crick commented on how the shortage of specialists in the social sciences threatens the delivery of the kind of high-quality citizenship education that his Department for Education and Employment-supported paper advocates).

How, then, might the lone social scientist, whether trained in the specialism or not, seek to challenge this isolation and ensure their professional development? Here, the specialist subject associations, like the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences (ATSS), the Politics Association and the Association for the Teaching of Psychology, can play a vital role on a number of levels.

First, by providing access to teachers in a similar position through meetings, conferences and student activities, these associations counter the isolation problem. Second, through these events, the resources they publish and the networks they open up, they provide a vital source of in-service training. Therefore, particularly for the non-specialist, they provide a means by which subject knowledge can be developed. Third, as voluntary associations maintained by the efforts of working teachers, their executive bodies and local groups provide opportunities for participation that serve to enhance teaching practice and organisational and managerial skills. Finally, through the publication of their own journals and newsletters, teachers can keep abreast of new developments and events, as well as contribute to the publications.

Public examining at GCSE or A-level provides an opportunity to work with senior examiners and understand the examining process, while making contact with a local education authority's advisory service may open up further INSET opportunities. Few authorities support the social sciences as a discrete area of knowledge, but humanities advisers and PSE specialists will assist teachers who wish to develop their own provision.

Indeed, with a new national curriculum about to emerge - one focusing on citizenship and the clear admission that there is such a thing as society - schools, colleges and LEAs are likely to find that social scientists, for so long disguised as GNVQ managers, careers teachers, community service organisers and work experience co-ordinators, are valuable in their own right and for their specialist knowledge. Sociology and the social sciences have come of age.

Tony Breslin is chair of the ATSSand general adviser (14-19) in the London borough of Enfield.ATSS, PO Box 61, Watford WD2 2NH.Politics Association, Old Hall Lane, Manchester M13 0XT.Association for the Teaching of Psychology, co Chris Brain, Brunswick Campus, Gloscat, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1HL.

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