Too many last straws?

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Sir David Winkley, one of Tony Blair's first teaching knights, warns that failure is built into the school system

im Brighouse's response (TES, January 12) to the qualities of the teachers he sees is both typical and true. He is himself one component in Birmingham's success story. His enthusiasm reflects a genuine belief that goes right to heart of central government that teachers are not only important but seminal to national revival.

No government in British history has rated education as so important. Massive new resources are being allocated to schools, and a huge improvement programme is being promoted. Life for all of us is certainly more complex, but also more equitable; the quality of the experience of schooling for most children is probably better than it has ever been.

But even we in Birmingham are beginning to stare into the dark hole of teacher recruitment with some schools having problems not experienced since the mid 1970s. We face the paradox of witnessing teaching of the highest quality and enthusiasm against a background of creeping professional disillusionment.

I spoke recently to the head of a school with a warm and inviting atmosphere. The children are lively and self-confident, the teachers positive and hardworking. The school is full of good things - sport, art, music - and to no one's surprise it is oversubscribed.

The head is academically very able, a fine teacher, a strong leader, well-balanced, totally committed and reliable. But he's had enough. Why? I ask, astonished. Because he said, for all his efforts, his school's test results are not improving fast enough and he's being threatened with that direst of penalties - special measures. It's the last straw. An Office for Standards in Education inspection is on the way and the local authority has warned him that the below average results may blow him out of the water.

So, he's planning to leave teaching because for all his years of efforts, despite what those who know think of him and his school, he may soon be classified as a failure.

What you have to realise, said the head, is that this is symptomatic of a fatal flaw in everything the Government is trying to achieve. We've been landed in an operational world that is ever-more complex, ever-more demanding. This is in part an inevitable aspect of change: but the system has added an overarching structure that is based on the presumption of failure.

Failure is built into the system by making use of national test results despite their obvious link to a raft of socio-economic factors. To police these inbuilt failure conditions the Government has created the double bind of OFSTED and league tables, each ased on the proposition that no one can be trusted, and deviations from an artificial standardised norm must presume the worst.

"I am not being complacent," the head said, "and of course the pressure is on all of us to improve - but do they think we sit about all day twiddling our thumbs?" In an atmosphere in which the excessive passion for audit blinds ministers to the realities of life on the ground they only deserve the worst. "They have created", he said, "too many last straws".

It is a disturbing critique, but out there in the trenches such views are commonplace. We certainly need to ask what can be done without compromising our crucial mutual objective of improving children's life chances.

Some changes would be cost-free. We could, for instance, rethink OFSTED to make schools feel inspection is a worthwhile part of their development. Why for instance, the sinister tab "special measures"? Why not a term such as "maximum support" which would be an entitlement to a package of resources and expertise, but under the school's control?

We need an environment in which teachers are encouraged to be open, self-developmental, confident and unoppressed: at the moment too many teachers live in an atmosphere of defensiveness. This is both absurd and unnecessary. The challenge is one for ministers and school leaders. We need to greatly improve logistical backup to schools and within schools. We need to give teachers more space to think and self-improve and to cope with rapid changes.

This will require improved funds and better use of resources. We need to find ways to improve curriculum support. We need better behavioural and child counselling support. We need vastly improved technical and administrative support. And everything needs to be tested against a single criteria: does this action, this piece of paper, this use of resources enhance the quality of the teaching?

Teachers are aware that they increasingly have choices. In Scotland pay is rapidly improving, in Northern Ireland league tables have been abolished to popular acclaim, in Wales the OFSTED regime has never been seen as oppressive as it has in England. But teachers in England should neither panic, nor be cynical.

This Government is listening, and there is a genuine and intelligent sense of moving on. Not of abandoning its standards agenda, but of profoundly reassessing the needs and roles of teachers as leaders in a changing world, capable of driving things forward for themselves.

I hope my colleague, the head, stays on and fights his corner.

Sir David Winkley is president of the National Primary Trust and former head of Grove primary school, Birmingham


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