You can say no

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Sue Palmer asks why teachers should follow orders if they do not agree with how pupils are taught

"So why did you do it if you knew it was wrong?"

"He told me to, Miss."

"Oh, he told you to, did he? And do you do everything he tells you to? What if he told you to jump out of the window? Would you do that?"

Well, would you? For years now, I have been travelling around the country on the literacy in-service trail, meeting thousands of primary teachers. I believe that they are among the most honest, hard-working, decent people alive. The overwhelming majority came into the profession because they wanted to do good - to help and empower children, and to make a worthwhile contribution to society. And yet, the overwhelming majority are currently doing things that we all know are wrong. When you analyse the reasons, it boils down to "he told me to".

How are primary teachers - and I count myself among their number - failing ourselves and the children we teach? Let me count the ways.

One. We have allowed ourselves to focus more on tests, targets and a school's position in league tables than on the nurturing of children and their all-round social, emotional and educational development.

Two. We have been seduced into a narrow and arid approach to teaching basic skills, relying on coaching and boosting to get as many level 4s as possible. In terms of literacy, this leads to children performing satisfactorily on a test, but without the in-depth appreciation of language that means they're truly literate. The development of true literacy involves a long-term approach to skills, knowledge and concepts, all embedded in motivating contexts that inspire children to learn. Nowadays we are so busy "delivering objectives" that there's no time for this.

Three. We have rushed very young children into reading and writing when they're still struggling to speak and listen, so that many fail before they've had a chance to succeed. They then spend the rest of their educational lives on catch-up programmes which are largely unsuccessful.

Since the children concerned are often those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, the gap between educational haves and have-nots is widening by the day.

Four. We have been cajoled into wasting long hours and effort on pointless planning when we should be directing all our energies into providing exciting lessons in the classroom on the day.

Is that enough to be going on with?

Sadly, we justify all these failings with the argument that "We're only following orders".

I've lost count of the number of times a group of teachers have approached me during a break to express it. "We know what we're doing is wrong," they say miserably, "but there's no way round it. We have to do it."

Then they explain that the Office for Standards in Education has told them to, or the school improvement unit, or the Government, or - especially in middle-class areas - the parents. "The parents expect it," someone explains. "They pore over the league tables every year. In the end, it comes down to bums on seats."

Every time this happens, I find myself dragged into the collective madness.

Truly, standing there in the school hall, there does seem no way out.

People are telling us to do it. We are trapped in a vicious system that makes us do stuff we know is wrong.

But stop a minute, and listen to our own advice to the children: "Do you do everything he tells you to? If he told you to jump out of the window, would you do that?" If a rogue inspector, a maniacal adviser, a target-crazed parent or that nice Mr Twigg tells us that defenestration is the new way forward, will we do as they say? If the primary national strategy issues an edict that we should all wear chamber pots on our heads, are you up for it?

Perhaps, instead, we should think for ourselves, confront these shadowy figures who hold us in their thrall, and start acting like moral human beings. Like the professionals we're supposed to be, we could say:

"No, that's wrong. From now on, we're going to do what's right for the children."

You know, I suspect it might be quite easy. All it would take is rational justification for our actions and the courage of our convictions. There's a ton of research to support a more balanced approach - one that recognises the importance of both educational standards and child development. I suspect that - just as so many bullies crumble in the playground - in the face of proper professional argument and conviction, the bogeymen would melt clean away.

This could be the year we stop jumping to the orders of anonymous oppressors who clearly know nothing about how children learn and how classrooms work. If we can only believe in ourselves, with one bound the profession could be free.

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