We should listen to outside perspective

The world of education can be rather inward-looking and it's useful to listen to an outside perspective from time to time

The world of education can be rather inward-looking and it's useful to listen to an outside perspective from time to time. My source on this occasion was a retired gentleman. His own experience of schooling had not been positive: he had left early, having been told by his teachers that he had few skills or abilities. Despite this, he went on to have a successful career in industry, ending up as managing director of an engineering firm.

He took a keen interest in the education of his grandchildren, attending events at their school and encouraging them to develop a wide range of pursuits. Articles on education in newspapers had made him appreciate the importance of praise, in contrast to his own schooling where criticism was the norm.

However, his managerial perspective led him to make a number of robust observations. For example, he could not understand the policy on teacher supply. How was it that policy-makers could not predict with reasonable accuracy the number of teachers needed from year to year? The relevant statistics were easily obtained. Birth rate figures are known well in advance of the time when children go to school. Similarly, official statistics provide data on the age profile of teachers and their probable retirement dates.

Why then, he wondered, did we seem to lurch from a sudden need to train more teachers to a situation where qualified teachers could not find permanent jobs? Apart from making a few comments about the induction scheme and the problem of matching jobs to the preferred location of teachers, I was unable to offer a complete answer to this question.

The retired gentleman was now warming to his subject. He had noticed that a senior figure in Scottish education - I had better not name him - had recently received recognition in the honours list. What had he done to deserve this? Surely it would be much more fitting if a classroom teacher who had spent a lifetime working with youngsters in difficult inner-city schools should receive the award? Such a teacher would be a more deserving recipient than someone who sat in a comfortable office most of the time and enjoyed a high salary.

I was tempted at this point to rehearse some of my own research on the use of patronage in public life, but my informant was well into his stride and did not need any encouragement.

Reflecting on this exchange afterwards, I was struck by a number of things. Here was someone who had been successful in life in spite of, rather than because of, his own schooling. Nevertheless, he valued learning and wanted his grandchildren to work hard and go to university. He recognised that teaching was an important and, sometimes, difficult job. And he respected the efforts of today's classroom teachers, most of whom were much more enlightened than those of his own schooldays.

He had less respect for educational policy-makers and bureaucrats, whom he regarded as overpaid and protected from the effects of their decisions. Perhaps, fortunately, he did not express a view on the usefulness of university professors.

All professions have a tendency to disregard the lay voice. There is often an arrogant assumption that only those who have been initiated into the mysteries of professional discourse have a right to be heard. The outside perspective can serve to challenge that complacency.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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