Why not trust the teachers?

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Charles Smith calls for a new approach to setting standards in secondary schools

Forty years in secondary education and I have still to see the elusive, satisfactory single answer to the question of what we should be trying to do and how we should be trying to do it. I do not, in fact, think there is such an answer. As a pupil, I was put into "ability" groups: that is, they were streamed. The perception was that such an arrangement effectively prepared pupils for life after school: either for work or for further or higher education. Discipline was not a problem. The authority of rector and staff was unquestioned by pupils or parents.

Training college gave me brief experience of a junior secondary (the one in question was the pits); a senior secondary (student teachers were accommodated in a large broom cupboard); and an independent school, where we were made welcome in the staffroom, sharing tea and sympathy. (Why can't people stick to their stereotype?) There followed a career in senior secondary, a multilateral and three comprehensive schools.

Which, if any, of these types of social engineering best suited needs? Well, at a practical level, my reaction to this question would be that - at least in a mining town in the mid-forties - multilateral provision reflected the needs of a labour-intensive, full-employment society which is, alas, no longer with us. It also reflected the perjink social gradations of the day, something I thought I would be glad to be rid off - except for the fact that what we now have is worse. There seems to be little "pride o' worth" these days, however "worth" is defined.

Teaching in a senior secondary was great. I enjoyed every minute of it (poetic licence). Great staff, many first-class pupils. And both curricular and extracurricular attainments were considerable. I think the same could be said of not a few junior secondaries. For example, the word from Fife was that there was much boldness and initiative on display in educating and training those who had been told at the age of 11 that they had failed. But many junior secondaries had pretty poor reputations. No, I would not much like the juniorsenior secondary educational and therefore social divide to reappear.

I believe that comprehensives have worked quite well - great staff, many first-class pupils of all attainment levels - all taking on tasks that now extend far beyond the essentially academic, knowledge-and-skills remit of the immediate postwar years. But babies have been thrown out with bath water. The knowledge-and-skills remit is significantly overextended and lacking in depth. Nor is there the same insistence on high degrees of competence. Perhaps, in the circumstances, such things are inevitable - too much being attempted, in too many areas.

So what, in terms of present needs, could be done? How in terms of revised post-industrial perceptions, can we encourage in pupils a seemingly necessary self-assertive individualism which will none the less show respect for and contribute to the common good? The educational dilemma implicit in that last sentence is, of course, the societal one, writ small.

Here is a really revolutionary thought: how about the Government deliberately reducing the amount of control it exercises on schools' endeavours? How about the next set of ministerial strictures being of the self-denying variety, such as: "Make your own decisions about curricular content. Feel free to choose whatever teaching methods and class groupings you think best suit your purposes. And don't worry about inspections. You'll know well in advance areas to be inspected and standards which have been set. You're teachers. We trust you."

In the pursuit of excellence, could we engage in what has been described, in terms of running businesses, as the simultaneous "loose-tight" structure of management? That is, as a nation we say clearly and specifically what is wanted, at a strategic level. Then give those who function at an operational level (the teachers) the freedom, school by school, to get on with it. Control should be tight in saying what is needed; loose (or "light") in terms of defining the ways of working towards the set targets. Such a system would seem to me to accord with the "shape up or ship out" ethos which is seen by many as providing the solution to many of our problems.

That is, assuming that "schooling" is a practical necessity, to what degree could we leave the task of educating the young to the individual secondary school, its staff and its parents? Is it possible that politicians could exercise their right to do nothing and leave the local institution to deliver the goods in its own way? Bizarre, or what? Well, no, I don't think so. Surgeons, lawyers, accountants do not seem to require input from laymen on the functional aspects of how to perform operations, dispense justice or balance books. Therefore, let the Scottish Office issue curricular guidelines; let the Scottish Qualifications Authority determine how, when and what credits may be allocated; let Government determine funding levels; let the Inspectorate evaluate. But let the local professionals determine the pedagogical principles by which learning and teaching take place in their institutions. Let the teaching styles, size and structure of class all be decided at a local level. Teachers would still be judged, although not, I hope, using the present simplistic comparisons made possible by the publication of results and absence tables. These figures provide useful information but, being comparative, do not provide benchmarks. They can obscure rather than clarify.

Mind you, there are other estimable but dauntingly comprehensive indicators which can be and are used successfully by quality assurance gurus to measure competence. Would it take much to shape from them, a "lean, mean" programme of basic levels of competence which all schools would be expected to attain - or else? To these foundation levels of competence could be added credit levels from which schools, with their different characters and competencies, would be able to choose to demonstrate, in selected areas, their significantly higher than adequate effectiveness.

There should be a direct client responsibility for, client input into, and client judgment of the educational product. The school board, as currently constituted, would not be able to handle this remit, although it has a majority of parent members. It has little real power. Transform it into a board which has the right to define, in strategic terms and in dialogue with the professionals, what it wants. Let it understand what plans of campaign have been set in train; what resources are available; what targets have been set. Give it the duty to monitor and evaluate what has been done. Give it the right to applaud success and act on failure; to consult and inform the client group of year-on-year progress.

Each school would then have, in the shape of the board, a local "friend in court" or a "chief prosecutor" depending on how targets and tasks were, or were not, overtaken. How imaginative and relevant, they would ask, is the curriculum? How effective and efficient is its delivery? Are exam results satisfactory or not? Do absence figures signal an impediment to effective teaching and learning? How lively is the extracurricular scene? Are resources appropriate to needs? Is the feel-good factor evident around the school?

Not the least satisfactory feature would be a growth in community involvement, the promotion of a common weal, a burgeoning pride of worth. With a communitarian ethic still well to the fore in these northern climes, it would work. And teachers would have the opportunity to regain the high social regard and standing, which they had in great measure when I first entered a school as pupil and, indeed, as a teacher.

Charles Smith retired recently as rector of Airdrie Acade

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