Trusted in Scotland, scorned in England;Platform;Opinion

29th January 1999 at 00:00
The focus south of the border is on poor teachers, not good learning, and that is the crucial difference, says David Bell

AS I WAS going through Jordanhill College of Education in 1981, the then Scottish Education Department produced the seminal Learning and Teaching in Primary 4 and Primary 7. It was to be the first of a number of documents that looked at learning and teaching in different phases of the Scottish system. Even though nearly 20 years have elapsed, they are as pertinent as ever as discourse about learning and teaching remains central to thinking in Scottish education.

So what? You might say. Surely, there is a UK-wide interest in learning and teaching. Well there is, except in England it is the other way round - the focus is quite definitely on teaching and learning. Is it no more than an accident of history? Or does it signify some more fundamental distinction between our two systems?

You cannot fail to notice the current obsession with "teaching" in England. From the infamous claim by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers through to literacy and numeracy strategies, there is a clear focus on teachers and what they are doing.

The views of the chief inspector are instructive in this respect as he has made it quite clear that the ills of the system could largely be addressed if teachers just taught better. For him, the new national strategies and other prescriptions will work precisely because they remove a large degree of freedom from how teachers teach.

Now it could be argued that the only difference between Scotland and England is that north of Hadrian's Wall the senior chief inspector knows how to behave in polite company and would never dream of expressing his views in such a manner. I have no real way of knowing what his views actually are beyond reading HMI publications. However, I suspect that there is a more fundamental difference between north and south of the border that might go some way towards explaining the English obsession with teaching.

It all comes down to the T-word, trust. Teachers in England have never been trusted. Look at the evidence. They misbehaved badly during the industrial action of the 1980s and so they got the national curriculum that, in the immortal words of Duncan Graham, its chief architect, was designed to put them in their place.

Worse than that, far too many teachers in England, particularly those who worked in primary schools, were infected with loopy nonsense from the colleges of education such as discovery learning and group work.

Of course, there is a little exaggeration here for dramatic effect, as there is in suggesting that Scotland is a nirvana of teaching excellence. Previously, I was always sceptical of the notion that teachers were looked at differently north of the border. Even now, I would be cautious about suggesting that teachers are more respected in Scotland as I am not actually sure what this means. However, I think it is fair to say that the Scots remain attached to a myth (and no less powerful for that) that education is a democratising force and that teachers play a significant role in providing opportunities for all.

I also think that the Educational Institute of Scotland should probably take a bow as well as it has always steered a canny path between the distinct roles of professional association and trade union. In this, the unions in England have failed, not necessarily through want of trying, but as a result of public perception.

But I hear you say again, does it really matter? I think it does for a number of reasons. First, teachers in England are far more likely to get the blame for the inadequacies of the education system. How often are teachers in Scotland pilloried when their school or local authority languishes near the bottom of the league table?

Second, the Scots have managed to strike a better balance between self-review and external inspection. The inspection framework in England now majors on assessing the quality of teaching whereas the Scottish Office Education Department's publication, How good is our school?, attempts to see teaching in the round and set alongside other factors that influence pupils' learning.

Third, an over-concentration on teaching can blind us to research about how pupils learn. Part of my proselytising role in England is to remind teachers of Margaret Clark's little book How children learn, which is more valuable today than it was when I first read it as a student nearly 20 years ago. Clark's message was that we should not make the dangerous assumption that all children learn in the same way.

Do not get me wrong. Focusing on teaching and how it can be improved is an essential part of what we all must do. The English "obsession" has had some benefits, as has the work on the national literacy strategy.

Where it has been introduced sensibly, teachers have welcomed the greater structure and the building of a consensus around what actually works in classrooms. In addition, the focus on quality has helped to dispel the notion that teaching is such an art that it cannot be analysed and its essential components identified for wider dissemination.

Also, the focus on teaching in England has exposed failing schools that have denied thousands of children a decent education. It may be brutal, but identifying schools that are failing and where teaching is poor has been a necessary corrective.

So, Scotland should be proud that its language of education puts the needs of learners first. But however difficult it might be, a glance south of the border may be instructive as "wha's like us" is not the basis of intelligent learning.

* David Bell is director of education and libraries with Newcastle City Council. He was born and brought up in Scotland and began his teaching career in Glasgow.

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