Time to trust the teachers again

It was all so encouraging. The Government accepted the goal of "building a body of teachers well-prepared, academically and professionally, to sustain confidently the formidable task to which they are called". To do so, it promised to produce a four-fold increase in career-long in-service education and training, a substantial growth in teacher numbers to support in-service and the induction of new teachers plus an agreement that the profession itself should be the major agent in deciding on competence and recognition.

The government was British and the time was almost exactly 25 years ago. More surprisingly, the Conservatives were in power and the Secretary of State for Education was Margaret Thatcher.

No mention in 1972 of central control, agencies, social markets or hit squads. Rather, there was encouragement and goal-setting for the "partners in the enterprise - the teachers, their employers and the institutions in which teachers are educated and trained". The government approved the recommendations of an inquiry that had reported earlier in the year (the James Committee). The main principle of the James Report was to "enhance the status and the independence of the teaching profession and of the institutions in which many teachers are educated and trained".

However, only a few years later, a new Conservative government now led by Mrs Thatcher, began the task of creating one of the most centralised education systems in the world. The Teacher Training Agency now defines the content, style and location of training. In so doing, it threatens the traditions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom that characterised the teacher education institutions so vigorously endorsed by the Conservative administration 25 years ago.

Several reasons have been advanced for the earlier failure to implement the proposals to enhance the profession's education and training. Many argue that the economic crises of the Seventies made the promises inoperable. However, as the new Government endorses many of the Conservatives' education policies, it is clear that something more fundamental underlay the failure to trust teachers.

It is likely that Whitehall bureaucrats saw that the James proposals for education and training utilised all the existing partners but placed the profession, not the State, at the centre. Most critical was the priority given to in-service education justified by the James Committee's assertion that "the best education and training of teachers is that which is built upon and illuminated by growing maturity and experience". Such a system would have ensured that teachers had a route to advanced training and access to higher education - including the opportunity to participate in research that could have made many schools centres of enquiry and innovation.

As the present Government expensively advertises its claim that teachers are crucial to the country's future it is now even more urgent to provide the conditions for a new professionalism. In spite of the increased demands on schools, the initial training period for most teachers is only one year and there are no national arrangements or resources to support the new member of staff once she is appointed.

Again, the strangulated prose of the 1972 White Paper, Education - a Framework for Expansion, painted a very different picture: "The Government share the view .. that a teacher on first employment needs, and should be released part-time to profit from, a systematic programme of professional initiation, guided experience and further study ... they must be released for not less than one-fifth of their time for in-service training."

If, as many hope, the new Government is ready to go beyond spins and soundbites, the DFEE might find it helpful to revisit the James Report and the White Paper. They will at least be exposed to the view that high-quality teaching and learning in schools can best be achieved by a profession that has a preparation that combines initial training and induction and thus enables the new teacher to establish her own independent identity. On that firm foundation, it would then be essential for the profession to be sustained by regular opportunities for further education and training.

Have times really changed? Is the present Government persuaded that it is not politicians, civil servants or external agencies but teachers that make the difference? If so they must both will and resource the conditions that will ensure that outcome.

James Porter is the former director of the Commonwealth Institute.

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