Time to trust the teachers

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Once we've finishing hissing the villain, we will have the chance to build on what has been achieved, says Carol Adams

WHERE were you when Kennedy was shot or when Princess Diana died? Everyone in my generation knows exactly where they were. I suspect that every teacher will remember where they were, and what they were doing when they heard Chris Woodhead was leaving the Office for Standards in Education.

Regrettably, the chief inspector came to be perceived by many teachers as the pantomime villain, guaranteed to bring on the hisses, the "Oh yes he did!", in a polarised knock-about in which teachers were blamed for failing children and the chief inspector was blamed for demoralising teachers . But, like any pantomime villain, his criticisms became a symbolic ritual, a caricature, based on a world of heroes and villains, increasingly unhelpful to the pressing needs of education.

Perceptions are important, and unfortunately the perception developed within the profession that teachers were blamed for all the shortcomings of the education system, and were seen as putting their own interests before children's. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Chris Woodhead emphasised the central importance of effective teaching and learning in the classroom and, together with effective management, it formed the basis of the inspection framework which has had a significant impact on standards in schools. He opened doors on corners of complacency, challenged the culture of low expectations in schools and LEAs and rightly stressed children's achievement as his central and passionate concern.

But the tone in which this was done conveyed a lack of respect for teachers and little empathy with people who for the most part have chosen a career in the public service, in preference to financial gain or social kudos. Such people expect and deserve respect in an increasingly materialistic society.

This feeling of disdain towards teachers offended not just the ultra-sensitive and the disaffected, but a vast middle ground of professionals who are robust towards criticism, who turn up day after day, year after year, to teach in schools in the face of increasingly complex challenges. They have written and rewritten the curriculum, their assessment, planning and monitoring arrangements; they have reorganised their classrooms, timetables and school day; they have taken on mountains of paperwork, longer hours and have had to cover more for absent or non-existent colleagues. They do all this to the point of exhaustion because they are professionals and as such are committed to their students. They are accountable and accept the need for external accountability. But in return they have every right to expect a degree of recognition and a place at the table when their future is being determined.

It is now time for a new alignment across the educational spectrum, including OFSTED, with a more positive tone, which supports teachers and recognises them as the key agents of educational improvement. There are some urgent issues, not least teacher retention as well as recruitment, and we need a plan, supported by a range of agencies, including Government, to invest in the future teacher workforce.

Teachers need to be properly rewarded for the job they do and to have the physical, material and organisational resources they need, including time for their own learning, support staff to take on non-teaching tasks an the necessary technical infrastructure to facilitate the use of ICT for learning. Teachers recognise that all this costs a great deal of money and cannot be achieved overnight. What they do appreciate is being asked for their views, secure in the knowledge that when offered they are taken into consideration. With new leadership at the Teacher Training Agency and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as well as OFSTED, a new Leadership College and a general election on the horizon, all agencies, including teachers themselves, need to be devising ways of generating a constructive climate of trust. The General Teaching Council sees this as central to its role.

Excessive external accountability has sapped precious time, creativity and energy from teachers and is becoming unproductive. It is taking them away from the very thing that attracted them to the job - a love of teaching. Teachers need a system of accountability which is rigorous, transparent and fair, but which reinforces their sense of professional responsibility, rather than adding burdens and detracting from it.

Teachers are at the front line in relation to the next generation in a way that no other workers are; they have daily contact with around 8 million young people from age three to 18, from the poor, abused and the damaged, to the well supported and affluent. Teachers are unique in having this personal access to those who will be our future. They have a unique role as educators, which requires them constantly to exercise professional judgment, drawing on a repertoire of skills and knowledge. At the General Teaching Council we are currently discussing with hundreds of teachers how professional accountability might be encapsulated through a professional code.

We have the opportunity to build on what has been achieved, to trust teachers to exercise accountability for themselves and to move to a system of self-regulation with external checks and balances which shore up that trust rather than undermine it.

Surely now is the time to begin the debate about what OFSTED's third inspection cycle might look like. Possibly, a lighter and leaner approach, based on regular audits of data, with a much less intensive programme of visits. The relationship between systems of self-evaluation and OFSTED's external checks might be reconsidered, as should a more explicit link between inspection and improvement. The current framework points in this direction but could well be developed further.

It would be quite wrong to attribute all of the pressures on teachers to the leadership of OFSTED. Central government has unquestionably added to the burden and the diet of pressure and support has not been sufficiently balanced. The current evidence of depression and stress reported among teachers gives cause for real concern. In the words of a winner of last week's Teaching Awards: "It is passion and enthusiasm that allows children to learn." Such qualities require regular sustenance.

Lasting improvement and the genuine embedding of change will require handing back responsibility to teachers - for setting and upholding standards for their own profession and their own performance within an external framework which has wide support and acceptance. To give your views on any of the issues raised in this article, please visit the GTC website at www.gtce.org.uk

Carol Adams is chief executive of the General Teaching Council for England

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