Take your heads out of the sand;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
SECONDARY schools as we know them are in their death throes, because we are attempting to educate the young of the late 20th century within the style and structure of the late 19th century school and its teachers' contractual conditions and understanding of personal authority.

The action being taken by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers seems only to underline this very issue. Clearly there is a major problem of the education quart not being able to fit into the education pint pot. However, to take action that seeks to drive teachers back into their lonely classrooms, not permitting them to work with their colleagues in structured developmental work teams, seems to defy intelligent professional behaviour.

Teachers can only flourish and benefit professionally by acquiring the capacity for understanding what they are doing through the process of actually undertaking their professional work. Is this not the mark of a true professional in any field? Teachers must gradually acquire an understanding of the nature and of the process of how the young can learn, and of how their colleagues manage this learning effectively. This means that teachers must work together in well-focused purposeful teams, meeting regularly, learning from one another and establishing procedures for improving the effectiveness of what each does with his or her own students.

Does it make professional sense to not attend morning staff briefings; not to contribute to and learn from your team or curriculum team meetings; not to contribute to the development of plans and strategies that seek to improve young people's learning and to raise their aspirations and motivation? Does this style of approaching one's weekly professional working life not have more in common with the proverbial ostrich sticking its head in the sand, so as to avoid the use of its own personal authority?

If it is the case in some schools that meetings are held that regularly achieve nothing, then teachers ought to challenge the chair's competence and accountability - whether it be the team leader, the deputy head or the head of the school. In that way, the just rights of teachers to do their work effectively and in a developmentally constructive manner is supported and not blocked.

All labourers, including heads, must be worthy of their hire. I have often been struck by the lack of any consideration of the rights of students and of other colleagues, as well as of other stakeholders, in the ways in which teachers collude with, ignore, mutter about or covertly protect misconduct or simple inefficient incompetence on the part of their colleagues. They complain to their union, but fear tackling the issues on the ground, using their personal authority.

Students have an inalienable right to be relevantly, appropriately and thoroughly taught. Teachers have an inalienable right to expect the appropriate work contribution, competently delivered from their fellow workers. They must not have to carry the added burden of someone whose selfishness, incompetence, dishonesty and emotional immaturity significantly inhibits others' working lives - including when it is the head or deputy head, where the style of exercising the leadership role has become an insult to the very term.

The union action now taking place is totally irrelevant in very many schools - indeed it is counterproductive and destructive of teachers' working conditions. Where there are incompetently managed schools, teachers should get guidance and support from their unions, in learning how to use their own collective and personal authority to put matters intelligently to rights.

All teacher unions should take a more critically constructive forward-looking approach to supporting their members, rather than the casuistic Luddite pathway that leads lemming-like to a denial of teachers' professionalism, so desperately needed as we go into the 21st century.

Anita Higham is principal of Banbury School, Oxfordshire

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