Till the soil to get rich harvests

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Margaret Maden says teachers' daily experiences are vital to aid improvement

The answer lies in the soil" used to cause much mirth amongst urban sophisticates when intoned by a rustic-voiced Kenneth Williams in his regular take-off of Gardeners' Question Time. However, it remains true; the most expertly-planned rose garden, using genetically perfected species and importing the latest mechanical diggers, would come to naught unless the soil was treated with respect.

This offers a useable metaphor when we think about current educational reform. Ministers have been examining ways of boosting morale among teachers as a result of the Government's consultation on its measures to raise standards.

What happens in classrooms between teachers and pupils is, indeed, the soil of educational quality. Rather belated recognition of this basic truth should be warmly welcomed. Teachers are the solution, not the problem, but I don't think ministers believe this. If the promised initiatives arise from what is essentially a reductionist or deficit model of teachers, with yet more top-down prescriptions, then the grand project will fail.

It sometimes seems that ministers acquire their mental picture of teachers through the strobe lights of teachers' unions' annual conferences, and through surveys which seek to elicit teachers' attitudes to macro-level policies. The result is a distorted and largely negative image. The Office for Standards in Education, local authorities and, sometimes, headteachers collude in this process, often unwittingly. There is now a combination of a greater production of aggregate-level "hard data" on teachers, mainly from OFSTED, along with a jockeying for position in the school improvement stakes between LEAs and headteachers' organisations. This results in teachers being treated as production-line factors to be managed and reshaped, or replaced.

What we no longer have is the collecting of "soft data" by HM inspectors and education authority advisers who, at best, closely observed and talked to teachers about how things work in classrooms. The culture and values of teachers are ignored.

School improvement is simply a proxy - a limited one in my view - for classroom improvement.

It is interesting, for example, that in December's spat between Stephen Byers and education authorities, the latter's right of entry to schools seems to be concerned exclusively with institutional transactions (the school's action plan, its targets and so on) rather than subject and other specialist advisers working with teachers. For most teachers, including curriculum co-ordinators and heads of departments, it is this kind of contact, conversation and dialogue that matters.

The wider local and national networks, which carry and generate expertise, research and development should start and end in classrooms, rather than in the offices of either headteachers or chief education officers. Much as I revere these positions - both of which I have filled in the past -and have not turned my back on the honour and critical importance of either, it is all too easy to forget that the essence of their jobs is to create optimal conditions in which teachers and learners can flourish, not the other way round.

I recently overheard a small group of teachers loudly bleating and whinging about OFSTED, league tables, the national curriculum, their own headteacher and much else besides. This was on a train, and it was only by dint of a rare spasm of self-control on my part that I didn't leap across the aisle and generally lay into them, to demand a bit more discernment and less defensiveness. However, a Jekyll and Hyde switch suddenly occurred. In the next compartment were their Year 11 students and, as the teachers took it in turn to check on their charges' behaviour, the conversation radically changed.

The teachers started to talk animatedly about their students' achievements, progress, motivation and eccentricities. It soon become clear that the journey was to a London concert and what enthused these teachers was a combination of the teacher-learner relationship and the particularities of music education. Such a combination can be endlessly replicated across all schools. It is this that is the potential growth point, available to policy-makers at national, local and school level. This is the soil which has to be enriched and cared for.

Education action zones represent another plank of Government policy which appears to view teachers as the problem, not the solution or as dependents to be bought off with higher pay. The political classes, with their new business partner allies, are cited as the prime movers in this potentially ground-breaking innovation. Why not groups of teachers, as would certainly be encouraged in Denmark and the Netherlands?

Bernard Barker wrote (TES, December 12) about his experience of how very able teachers labour unrecognised in schools which have been isolated after years of market-led strategies. Those strategies destroyed precious networks which linked together teachers in their subject and phase associations, inspectors and scholars in universities. The continuing enthusiasm and commitment of many teachers depend on policy-makers supporting these links.

Finally, and far away in Tokyo, a forum, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, was recently held on the production, mediation and use of knowledge in the engineering sector.

Seeking analogies between education and other areas of endeavour is not always advisable. However, some chords of recognition are struck when the forum report tells us that innovation and progress in engineering depend on:

* an "absorptive capacity" within firms (schools?), to recognise new talent, ideas and knowledge among their own workers; * education systems that develop critical minds in initial training and pay heed to professional updating; * effective networks for knowledge diffusion that cut across boundaries; * incentives at all levels to innovate, take risks and apply new ideas - a condition that is heavily dependent on the prevailing cultures within organisations.

The report also emphasises the importance of trust. This echoes the main findings of muchcurrent research into both successful education authorities and schools. My colleague, Professor Kate Myers, has recently identified the critical significance of trust in her book, The Intelligent School.

At the Tokyo Forum, Akio Kameoka of the Toshiba Corporation, also confirmed what many of us increasingly understand about educational research. He presented a "spiral" model of research, development and production in which the knowledge gained from markets and the use made of new technologies feeds back into the system by helping to define the future research agenda. This contrasts with a more traditional "linear" model, that starts with university-generated basic research, because the actual experience helps to set the agenda for future knowledge production.

The frisson in the reaction of many teachers to such insights from the slightly suspect, alien world of business and industry has to be taken on board. The Toshiba point is simply that the experiences of teachers and learners, in classrooms, should be understood as an integral part of a research spiral - testing and developing new ideas and identifying issues which need to be researched.

I hope it isn't too late for the daily practice and expertise of teachers to be taken more seriously. In their anxiety to control both the means and ends in creating a high quality garden, ministers have to show more respect for the soil of the classroom, where most answers lie.

Margaret Maden is professor of education at Keele University

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