Unhappy failures?;Opinion

8th May 1998 at 01:00
Joseph Kelly is worried about what will happen to the child whose poor test performance means a missed target for a teacher under pressure.

THE klaxon has sounded and the message has gone out loud and clear - there are no smiley-face badges for failure in our educational world.

The Government has gone up front with education and put it fair and square in the centre of its expectations and priorities.

They are intent on pursuing the performance culture with a gusto and intensity their predecessors only dreamed of. And they appear to find it hard to condone or make space for any form of under or non-achievement.

This explains to me why the Government's prelates slip easily into the role of pentecostals in the current cult of educational success.

Our current politicians operate in a culture of spouting promises, and education is probably the only field of endeavour that has come up with something more than rhetoric. No one can fail to notice that targets will be the flavour of the rest of this session - and every other session left to us, even the ones Nostradamus forgot to mention.

Mark Twain once noted that he didn't believe in Hell but was afraid he would go there. I can't quite agree with him. I believe in targets. But I am not sure I'm keen to go elbow over tea kettle for them. Nor am I attracted to the ethos that will grow like weeds around them, sure as guns are iron.

I grudgingly believe in targets, though for me the word summons up five year plans, norms to fulfil, scholarly Stakhanovites and a world slowly growing grey at the planners' breath.

I am prepared to part the curtains of East European dullness that targets conjure up for me, but I am not at all sure they will be panaceas for all that educationally ails us.

And I remain to be convinced that they are the smart bombs of the zero tolerance of failure blitzkrieg - a philosophy of which I am deeply suspicious.

Don't get me wrong. I defer to no one in my commitment to excellence and a quality agenda. I am as determined as anyone to raise standards, as long as no one brandishes fiery crosses at me. For all these reasons I welcome the information that targets are limited, deal with key priorities and should be set at realistic and achievable levels.

But I still get a niggling feeling about what will happen when we concentrate on targets, as we inevitably will. I fear we will be in danger of losing something and someone else, or of finding that something or someone is nudged out of place. For what will happen to the child who fails consistently to achieve the targets we set for him or her?

Probably the hardest thing for your resident alien psychologist to understand about humans is that they behave in a human way. And no group is as human as teachers when they feel that wall against their backs. The siren songs we have listened to over the past decade have been a series of initiative strettos - one voice has not stopped singing before the next one starts. The result has been a bad case of curricular and ethos tinnitus - the sound never stops.

The symptoms are a narrowing outlook and a constriction of educational arteries. In these times of targets with a no-failure warning attached, teachers will teach towards targets.

And as targets get tighter, tolerance of children who fail will become more strained, for the child who fails an exam will mean a teacher who fails a target.

I worry a little about the sub-text. Someone once said the only sin is ignorance. I wonder if this is a little dated, in the light of the living eye that now invades the living rooms of this country, dumbing us all further and further down.

But coming from a culture that knows something about sin gives you a wide variety of definitions to play around with. One such definition is that sin is not hitting the target and therefore constantly failing to be perfect. And zero tolerance means that sinners should be cast out from the ranks of the perfect.

This may not be said openly, but it's the subtext I am trying to get at. And I think the subtext is: zero tolerance for teachers whose children fail to reach targets.

The General Teaching Council dropped on my lettermat recently a leaflet about a Professional Code for Teachers. It emphasised core values, and suggested care, competence and commitment. Undue emphasis on targeting could come to mean that care takes a seat further back.

If it does, can anyone tell me what will happen to the caring profession?

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