Vision beyond 'us' and 'them'

19th February 2010 at 00:00

One of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and soon "they" will emerge as the problem. Teachers will talk about "them" (management), management will talk about "them" (teachers and the local authority), and those in the local authority will talk about "them" (schools and government).

By externalising the problem, we strengthen our allegiance to our own group - "We need to work together or `they' will . ". What is fascinating is how it is possible to move (for example, through promotion) from being one of "us" to one of "them", emphasising the differences with those who were recently colleagues.

Perhaps some of the key drivers for this allegiance mentality are the hierarchies we have built up in Scottish education. Over the years, we have evolved rigid and deeply-layered hierarchies generating precisely the organisational mindset that promotes the top-down divisions of "us and them".

So the "us and them" attitude is merely a reflection of the reality faced by most unpromoted teachers in the classroom - for instance, when they look at the phalanx of "managers" piled high above them, both in school and beyond.

There is another critical element: the almost-total disempowerment of classroom teachers over the past two or three decades. Teachers simply do not have enough control over their own destiny to any extent that recognises their skills, knowledge and commitment. People who feel disempowered cannot but help see those who have taken their power away as "them".

Yet there is hope to counter the "learned helplessness" of the profession. I refer, of course, to the current financial crisis in public-service delivery and Curriculum for Excellence. These two apparently-disconnected events provide an imperative for change that has dramatically altered the landscape. In my more esoteric flights of fancy, I see this moment as our equivalent of the cataclysmic events which wiped the dinosaurs from the face of the earth.

The challenge for us will be to see if we can evolve to survive in our new world. Or will the big beasts attempt to maintain their dominance, striking out wildly in their titanic death throes at anything or everything within reach?

But what sustains me is my faith in our capacity to face up to reality and see this as an opportunity to do things in a different way. To create a system that provides people with freedom to make informed decisions underpinned by a mutual interdependence.

Certainly, the status quo is doomed. It may take one, two, three, four years or even longer, but things are changing. I foresee a time when schools shift back to being rooted in their own communities, where teachers are interdependent, and where we challenge the dominance of "them" and shift to "we".

Yet before I get too carried away in this euphoria of visioning, it's important to recognise that reality is tempered by hesitation from all of us to embrace "real" change. Perhaps I should just sit it out for a few years and see if things really become as bad as they say they are going to be. Why should I give up the power that I've worked so hard over my career to attain?

Why should teachers accept responsibility for the curriculum, which has now been foisted on them. Why not complain about "them", sit on their hands and wait until someone comes up with the great idea of telling them exactly what to do?

Don Ledingham is director of education and children's services in East Lothian.

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