Teaching could be better still

13th March 2009 at 00:00

Recently, I spent a day in Rosshall Academy, in Glasgow. I was curious to see how different things were. Had 12 years of a Labour government at Westminster and a decade of devolution made education better? Were teachers happier? Was the curriculum more enlightened? Were students getting a better deal?

On a practical level, I was green with envy. A new school (2002) and resources for which I would have given my right hand: 30 classroom support staff, computers everywhere, multi-media projectors connected to interactive Smart Boards, state-of-the-art drama studio and performance area, three gymnasia, a digital information system throughout the public areas. What's not to like?

Staff training has been a key feature of developments, and extra money made available from the Scottish Executive, the city council and private enterprise enabled staff to take advantage of courses which opened up new ways of working with students.

General impressions, then, were of a much better-equipped school, with teachers having more creative staff development than was common 20 years ago.

Were children getting a better deal? Yes. Was the curriculum more enlightened? It's getting there, and it is being delivered in more interesting ways. Were teachers happier? Well ... no. Teachers seem to be even more stressed than they were 20 years ago.

Why is this? Why, after so many millions of pounds being poured into education, with new and refurbished schools being the norm, with the support of pupil support assistants, school bursars and technological aids of all sorts, are teachers no more relaxed or satisfied with the context in which they work?

Asking around among teacher friends, I hear the same sort of answers: more demands and more accountability at all levels, responsibility to the pupils and increasingly high expectations from parents. Government is setting the pace. Schools are struggling to deliver what is expected, and what is expected, rightly, is improvement. Inspection has become more rigorous.

The workload itself has become heavier, partly - and ironically - because of the improvement in learning and teaching methods. Engaging children in active learning, stimulating them to explore, investigate, be creative, develop critical thinking - these are demanding tasks. The very technology which has done so much to improve teachers' lives can also be a burden. The computer is a hard taskmaster with its constant demands for responses. Assessment techniques have been refined, and reporting to parents is much more satisfactory than it was - but also much more time-consuming.

What is to be done? A system of sabbatical leave would help and would pay for itself in terms of motivating and refreshing teachers. More support staff for pupils with behavioural problems could make a huge difference to schools. A youth worker, a social worker, a community police officer - any or all of these specialists can use their different experience to work in flexible ways with children who cannot settle to mainstream class work. Inclusion can work if it is resourced properly, as Rosshall demonstrates.

Can some lessons be learnt from the financial and industrial world? Private firms build in rewards for staff. Luxury weekends at a spa hotel may be beyond our wildest dreams - and might raise some interesting comments - but opportunities could be found for celebration and rewards for teachers and pupils alike. Maybe we all need to lighten up a bit?

Margaret Macintosh was formerly head of Drummond Community High in Edinburgh.

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