When experts are ignored, quality will always suffer';Management

19th November 1999 at 00:00
It pays to listen to people at the chalkface. Teacher Paul Lamarra explains why.

Many teachers will have read Professor John MacBeath's recent research findings that parental choice is creating sink schools. Many won't have been surprised.

Classroom teachers and heads have watched for years as uniforms steadily became harder to enforce, fewer and fewer parents attended information evenings, the parent teacher association was consigned to the history books, places on the school board were left unfilled or at best uncontested.

It will strike many teachers that these observations count for nothing. Only when it is said by someone that matters, does it matter. They make their opinions known, they ask that their warnings are considered, they suggest action, but all to no avail.

If education has to be a science, then observation has to be the basis of all evidence and conclusions, and who better to provide that evidence than the classroom practitioners?

But this does not happen. The opinions of teachers have been denigrated. At best their opinions are seen as unhelpful, at worst cynical. Consultation becomes an apology for what has to be. Their suggestions are dismissed as a wish list. Many an editorial proclaims that education is too important to be left up to teachers.

Where are we now? The minister for education, Sam Galbraith, insulted the whole profession when he set up the McCrone committee, excluding any of the teachers' representative bodies. The profession is portrayed as obstructive, selfish, and clinging to anachronistic working practices.

Change is dressed up as necessary to raise achievement and as being in the best interests of the customer. Rarely do the bodies concerned come clean about their cost-cutting motives. When the Scottish Qualifications Authority suggested running Foundation, General and Credit papers together, so that pupils would have to endure three-hour examinations, did they have anything in mind other than cost-cutting? Is the move to internal assessment for the benefit of the pupil, or to reduce the costs associated with external marking?

Higher Still and 5-14 between them have placed schools in a constant state of assessment. So far teachers' protests have been ignored. Will some boffin come along in 10 years' time and confirm that we are assessing too much and teaching too little?

Maths teachers warned of the dangers of calculators, only to be told now that mental maths must improve and non-calculator papers are to be re-introduced. Teachers were dragged screaming and kicking into individualised learning, then into group work. Lo and behold, in the space of 10 years we're right back to setting and direct teaching.

Helen Liddell during her time at the Scottish Office asserted that the "Dos San Miguel" (two beers, please) attitude to modern languages must be overcome. But many local authorities responded by breaking their links with the foreign countries and native speakers through scrapping language assistants, a move that has ramifications for all levels of foreign language education, as university students struggle to find placements abroad.

Again, will the boffins appear to highlight the failings the profession warned of? There are too many vultures picking over the bones of education and yet more circle overhead.

For meaningful change to take place in education, teachers have to be at the heart of the deliberations. Teachers are not always right but business knows the value of the opinions on the factory floor. The opinion of the hard-pressed classroom practitioner should be given the same status as the opining of the respected Professor MacBeath and his colleagues. Let us stop trying to bolt the stable door after the fact. Teachers are too important to education to be left out.

Paul Lamarra teaches at Taylor High School, North Lanarkshire

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