Work-shy? What an insult to teachers

5th December 2008 at 00:00
If they expected the worst of their pupils, they would be reprimanded. So why is the system based on not trusting them?

How conscientious, dedicated and selfless is the typical teacher? This question has been bothering me as I consider the workload of a primary teacher I know and then reflect on some of the assumptions that govern how she is perceived by politicians and the outside world.

The individual in question is in her late 20s and in her first few years of teaching at a state primary in inner London. The hours she works are daunting. She is in school by 7.30am and does not get home until around 5.30pm. Often, she also works in the evening. Weekends are never work-free, and a recent one was entirely devoted to preparing for an Ofsted inspection.

None of this will come as a shock to many readers, of course. But what does alarm me is that policies appear to have been devised without detailed research into teachers' commitment to their job.

During research for my recent book on test-based accountability, I developed a hypothesis that ministers have built up a vastly complex and intrusive system of school monitoring, based on exam results and realised principally through league tables, targets and Ofsted inspections. This indubitably tough regime might make sense, I reckoned, if most teachers were actually work-shy slackers, happy to put their own needs above those of their pupils.

But what if the reverse were true? What if most teachers naturally want to help their charges? Wouldn't the accountability system - which comes with huge downsides in terms of encouraging teaching to the test and the anxiety it often passes from the teachers to the pupils - be doing more harm than good?

Then came one of the most shocking discoveries of my book. I put my argument to Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair and one of the leading advocates of accountability systems. How did Professor Le Grand know that such systems were necessary? And what evidence did he have that teachers, left to their own devices, would simply fail their pupils?

The answer, he said, was that there was none, and a relevant study would be very difficult to construct. What's more, I was being naive in arguing that many teachers might be more public-spirited than the system gave credit for. I left bemused and depressed. Is assuming the worst of people the best way to motivate them, I wondered?

It seems to me that the system of school accountability, and other schemes in the public sector, have been built on assumptions about human nature that stem directly from traditional economic thought. Economic assumptions - and the tools for influencing behaviour that have been built on them - have simply been imported to education without any empirical check as to whether they are accurate.

Mainstream economics, stemming from Adam Smith, assumes that it is possible to construct and direct human interactions on the basis that people are essentially self-interested, rational individuals who, given the choice, will pursue any course of action that furthers that self-interest.

Yet this need not be a problem, so long as people are given the incentives to behave in a way that matches their own self-interest to the needs of society, everyone can be a winner.

But Pete Lunn's book, Basic Instincts: Human Nature and the New Economics, challenges this theory. It comes from the burgeoning field of behavioural economics and argues that the assumption people are basically self-interested is just that: an assumption.

Behavioural economists seek to design experiments that check what people's motivations truely are. And it turns out that they are much more complex than conventional economic models suppose. We are governed by a host of feelings, from a need to be treated fairly, respected by our peers, have security, take pride in a job well done and, yes, maximise our own personal success.

The book also includes a case study of an altruistic, but slightly anxious, teacher who enters the profession because he "believes in it".

Lunn, and others in this field, scathingly argue that traditional economics has proceeded from an abstract view of human nature, without bothering to check whether this applies in reality. This, it seems to me, is exactly how teaching has been regulated in recent years.

Evidence of this is not hard to come by. The Government's recent decision to scrap key stage 3 tests does thereby ease the accountability pressure on teachers. However, its trial of single level tests, abandoned in secondaries but continuing in primaries, contains the controversial proposal of cash prizes for schools with good results. This contains an insult: that teachers need to be paid extra to do the best by their pupils.

And now ministers are proposing releasing yet more information that could rank schools, this time on how well they promote pupil wellbeing. The implicit assumption is that doing so, as well as providing parents with useful data, encourages schools to pay attention to these aspects of schooling. In other words, teachers need this incentive to attend to pupil wellbeing. Again, this is insulting.

I return now to the young teacher mentioned at the beginning. Much of her workload is paperwork and bureaucracy. In other words, she spends so much time trying to prove that she is doing her job properly, she is exhausted and questioning whether she wants to do it at all. Yet the very hours she works show her dedication.

With so many aspects of modern economic thinking up for debate - and mainstream economics finally taking its critics seriously - the Government could do worse than reconsider how it applies economic theories to the public sector. Research that assessed how public-spirited teachers truly are would be welcome.

Warwick Mansell, TES reporter and author of 'Education by Numbers'.

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