Time to think the unthinkable

30th January 1998 at 00:00
Teachers often complain about their workload. They talk of long hours and great pressures. They complain that their timetabled teaching is only the tip of a great iceberg of preparation and marking, of meetings and form-filling. They feel misunderstood by the public, who regard their long holidays as a luxury, whereas they know it to be an absolute necessity.

I used to be a teacher, so I have some sympathy. Now that I'm part of the rest of the world, however, I realise that other people work hard too. Never working more than eight weeks without a break no longer seems to me like the natural order of things. I wonder if that's really the way we should go on. We are urged these days to "think the unthinkable". Let's do it now: imagine if teachers got the same working conditions as the rest of the workforce. Nine to five. Four weeks' holiday.

How strange would that be? Would teachers be willing to trade in their holidays for a strictly limited workload? If they were, the implications for our schools are staggering. We could offer extra courses between terms: every child could have an additional three weeks' school in a class of 10. There could be catch-up literacy and numeracy courses, extra sports, extra music, extra art and drama. Parents would love their children to get that kind of help and enrichment.

There'd be plenty in it for the teachers, too. A re-think of our education system to produce an unpressured school day would bring us back to first principles. Why should teachers spend hours preparing lessons? Why should they attend two or three meetings a week? Why should they spend hours producing bureaucratic evidence to prove that they have followed instructions? That's no way to use caring and creative people.

Let's take those time-wasters one by one.

Preparing lessons: here I make an unashamed plea for a return to traditional textbooks. As a special needs teacher, I rarely found self-prepared materials even approached the quality of the best books. The idea that teachers can only teach from materials they have generated themselves is one of the great delusions of modern education. In a good textbook the information to be learned is clearly laid out, and there are follow-up exercises to test and extend knowledge and thinking, and tasks to develop skills. This allows the teacher to offer differentiated teaching, quickly picking and choosing the questions and exercises that are appropriate. The more the textbook is relied upon, the more skilful the teacher will become in using it. Creative energy can then be deployed in teaching, not in struggling to re-invent the wheel. The teacher becomes free to experiment, even to extemporise, as the textbook will provide solid structure.

Meetings: these are usually grossly inefficient and could be largely cut. It is usually assumed that teachers are incapable of reading notices, so hours are spent listening to them being read out. Many meetings exist to give the appearance of consultation, when it would be easier and more honest for the management simply to issue directions. But most important of all, if we stop re-organising our schools, we would no longer need most of the meetings.

Bureaucracy: teachers are required to prove they are doing their jobs by filling in forms. In special needs, for example, it seems that the primary concern is to fabricate evidence that special provision has been provided, rather than actually providing it. Think how much more real help children could get if all the people currently employed determining how resources should be directed started teaching instead? It was recently calculated in California that 51 per cent of those employed in education have the job of watching other people teach. Britain's almost there too. This Government, like the last one, claims to want to go back to the educational basics. And yet that always seems to involve adding new layers. If we really want the basics, then we must clear away the froth, simplify the life of the school, and direct all our energies to teaching.

Our aim should be that when the school-bell sounds at the end of the day, teachers spend another hour doing the marking and then go home, forgetting school until the next morning. Then perhaps they wouldn't need those long holidays.

Stephan Shakespeare, a former head of special needs at a London comprehensive, is a Conservative political consultant

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