Use some Spidey sense

7th December 2012 at 00:00

"With great power comes great responsibility." For years I thought Winston Churchill said this, until I found out it was actually Uncle Ben in the first Spider-Man film.

When I started primary teaching, power and responsibility were fairly easy to define. The adults had the power and tried to make the kids believe that the responsibility lay with them. The head's heightened powers lay in taking assemblies, dealing with the more unruly children and parents, and sighing heavily down the phone when you rang in sick.

Since then things have changed out of all recognition. There are managers, line managers, deputy managers, policies, procedures and protocol, all outlining a complicated power structure that lies somewhere between MI5 and Downton Abbey.

Some schools have gone even further and given most of the power to the children. In one school I know, it is forbidden to tell a child off. All behaviour management has to come through positive reinforcement. If a child misbehaves it is the teacher who gets a telling off. Year 6 pupils are also dispatched, Ofsted-style, to drop in on teachers and grade lessons.

With the power balance shifting like frozen turkeys on Christmas Eve, it's no wonder we're left feeling as if we're standing on quicksand. Increased powers of observation for heads and the prospect of performance-related pay loom, meaning every underachieving child must be handed up the school like a ticking time bomb primed to detonate with the Year 6 teacher who has no one to offload him or her on.

In any other profession, raising expectations of staff would go hand in hand with increasing their powers, supporting their work and allowing them to use their professional judgement. With teachers, someone has decided to see if they can raise standards by increasing our workload, bombarding us with new initiatives and requiring written evidence for everything we do.

Now, I'm not arguing that every teacher should be left alone to reign supreme in their classroom, but surely there should be some realisation that teachers are best placed to know how to bring out the best in their pupils and can do this without supervision. Our every move is now micromanaged to the extent that I can't change my teaching assistant's groupings for a morning without getting permission from the relevant manager.

While our powers are shrinking our responsibility is growing at an exponential rate. Our leaders may issue directives with all the logic and coordination of a waterskiing hippo but they're fairly unanimous when it comes to apportioning blame. Falling grades, poor behaviour, lack of ambition in the younger generation - this is just a random sample of problems currently being laid squarely at the classroom door.

Just imagine if the people who really were responsible stepped up. Would Ofqual representatives go door to door handing over re-marked C grades along with consolation boxes of chocolates? Would Ofsted inspectors who have demoralised schools repent and lead the way through encouragement rather than intimidation? Would leaders who blithely churn out new initiatives stand back and look at whether they work? We all know this is about as likely as the new Archbishop of Canterbury eloping with Dale Winton. After all, not everyone is as morally responsible as Spider-Man.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school and writes under a pseudonym (she is not related to Tim Brighouse). Ms Anne Thrope is taking a short break. She will return at the start of next term.

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