Saturday, 28 April 2012

Back the teachers

When at school I remember an excellent history teacher called Richard Leveson. He really made the subject come to life, with the enthusiasm he brought to the classroom.
A friend of mine was so inspired by Mr Leveson that having got a top grade at O level, he decided to take the subject onto A level. Half way through the course though Mr Leveson left. My friend, Neal, became disillusioned with his replacement, who simply went through the motions, without any great enthusiasm. A little later, Neal left the VI Form altogether, failing to complete his other courses. I got my A level but it would all have been much better if Mr Leveson had stayed on.
The story is instructive because it shows how important good teachers can be in inspiring students onto bigger and better things. Equally, less able teachers can thwart or disillusion, often impressionable students.
Given the value of teachers in this context it is difficult to understand why so many politicians feel it is ok to openly attack the profession. How often recently has the cry gone up that it must be made easier to sack teachers and close schools?
Teaching used to be a respected profession. Now the one concern seems to be the need to sack people. Whatever happened to dignity at work?
The way in which teachers have been bullied and scape goated over recent decades is nothing short of scandalous. The micromanagement of the teaching profession, going back to the days of the lamentable Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker, has been incredible to behold.
The whole creation of the inspection edifice, titled Ofsted, with its powers to come in and inspect schools. The resulting obsession with league tables, leading to an exam factory ethos. Children now travelling miles around the country each day to attend schools all in the name of parental choice.
Parents have also been one of the problems. While parents should be constructively engaged with their children’s education and so the performance of the school, many go way beyond these requirements. So many parents load their own totally unrealistic expectations onto the child and the school that he or she attends.
The reality is that everyone does have unique gifts, the job of a school is to help discover and hone those gifts for life. This type of process is not always helped by the exam factory atmosphere, where everything becomes subservient to the league table culture.
Teachers and pupils need to be valued for what they are and how they contribute to education. Government ministers should start listening to teachers and the unions about what is going on in the class room and what needs to change.
The present drift of education is back to the future. The excellent comprehensive system of education brought in during the 1960s and 70s - to give everyone regardless of background an equal chance - is being steadily dismantled, often by public school educated ministers.
The move to academy status by so many schools, taking them out of local authority control to become autonomous self governing entities, could quite easily be laying the ground for the return of grammar and secondary modern school education.
The well resourced and managed academies operating in affluent areas will do well, attracting many of the most able students and teachers. But what of the least well resourced schools operating in the poor areas. They will have an uphill struggle. Lack of resources will make it more difficult to educate, the results won’t be as good, so special measures will resort. An inevitable spiral to the bottom ensues. The teachers will get blamed again, when they have been given an impossible job.
What successive governments have failed to understand about schools is that they are not exam factories. It is not about running a conveyor belts of pupils, coming in wearing one uniform, then going out another door a few years later ready to wear another and conditioned for “the real world.”
Education is a wonderful thing when it is not conducted as some sub-division of market capitalism. It can open and expand the minds of people of all ages. Teachers should be valued because they can inspire people beyond all expectations in their chosen subject. Yes there are bad teachers, but there are bad performers in every form of human activity. They maybe in the wrong job because they didn’t get the right education themselves in the first place, who knows? However, the vast majority of teachers are hard working people, doing the best for their pupils and schools.
They have had much to put up with over recent years, suffering regular abuse from government and media whilst seeking to defend the vestiges of education from those who seek to turn the whole process back to the dark ages of mandatory 11 plus style selection.
It is time for people to get behind the teachers as they seek to defend the education system whilst educating the next generations.

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