“I had a teacher once… no oil painting he, with sagging stomach, Roman nose and Hapsburg chin. He taught us both ‘A’ level history and English, but he was equally passionate about cricket, medieval art and music. We never knew what would happen in each lesson, he simply fascinated us and sent us scampering away to ask a thousand questions.
To write about teachers is to enter emotional territory. Teachers, like everyone else, come in all shapes and sizes; they have their good days, and they have their bad. Some age before their time, others go on regardless, trying always to distinguish between how they talk to children and adults, but not always getting that right. Strangely there are now more trained teachers who aren’t teaching, than there are who actually teach! With just over 400,000 full-time equivalent teachers, there are 42,000 in training, which suggests an average professional life expectancy of only ten years1. This is strange, for the teacher quoted above had been teaching for over thirty years, and often shocked his pupils by saying that he thought he was still in training.
That man’s training had been very different from todays; a Cambridge graduate, he had gone through the war, and never been near a teacher training institution. But he was both vastly well read, and a shrewd judge of people2. He would smile tolerantly at former pupils who, from 1962, started to study the post-graduate Certificate of Education. He thought little of the idea that one term out of a single year could give graduates sufficient experience to merit being called “qualified”. Academic as he was he nevertheless saw much merit in the new four-year Bachelor of Education course then being introduced for those determined to make a career in teaching. He retired long before he could know of the difficulties that would arise in the mid 1970s when the comprehensive schools were formed by amalgamating grammar school teachers with their degrees and PGCEs, with modern school staff with Cert.Eds (2-year course) and B.eds3.
He taught us about the impact of Scientific Management (Th. 53) in turning former craftsmen into unthinking factory hands. Brought up as we were to be ‘broadly educated’ we were repelled by Taylor’s insistence that, in exchange for higher wages “All you have to do is to take orders and give up your way of doing things for mine”. Yet never in his wildest dreams could he have anticipated the impact such thinking would have half a century later when the report “Every Child Matters” called for “workforce reform”4. Government became convinced by its own rhetoric that in the previous year its educational policies had resulted in the best ever examination results, and so resolved that an ever more exact specification of individual responsibilities amongst all the agencies involved with children, linked to specific performance targets in each area, should be put under the unified control of a Director of Children’s Services. As local education authorities had already been stripped of most of their powers, it seemed logical that their director should now occupy a second-tier post.
The term workforce (previously on seen on motorways to describe workmen in the roads) is used to lump together teachers of reception classes, ‘A’ level specialists, probation staff, unqualified teacher assistants, social workers, school nurses, office staff and grounds maintenance workers. While all of them are absolutely rightly seen as co-workers in creating a joined-up provision to benefit children, these are, nonetheless, people with very different levels of skills, professional expectations and different working practices. It seems that an assumption has now crept in to such a structure from recent experiments in schools that, by defining ever more tightly what is involved in the curriculum, and its expected outcomes, the staff trained in its exact delivery do not need the skills or knowledge earlier required of traditional school teachers5. The model was to be increasingly that of the effective instructor with a defined task, not the generalist teacher expected to keep his or her eyes alert to everything going on around them.
Schools just don’t feel like the best of them used to feel. Many teachers resign after a few years (the pupils can’t, they have to wait for their credentials); 40% of newly qualified teachers in 2005 left within 3 years. The more determined stick it longer. Thirty-year-old Marie is typical; trained as a primary teacher between 1994 and ‘98 to deliver the national curriculum, she resigned after 6 years’ teaching, bitterly disappointed. “A robot could teach in today’s educational climate”, she wrote, “The job is formulaic — introduction, learning objectives, key vocabulary, main activity, plenary, assessment, targets. Deliver these things and you are a successful teacher. There is no requirement for teachers or children to be able to question, create, analyse, or discover. Clever, dynamic teachers teach these skills despite the system, not because of it. The school’s system is a machine, churning out clones instead of individuals. Each child has to achieve in certain politically ‘high value’ areas of the curriculum, or be deemed a failure.”6
Having misunderstood the multi-dimensional nature of children’s needs, schools have been left by government with little opportunity to consider the actual, broad, learning needs of children. Schools are increasingly defined by politicians as mechanisms to meet the ambiguous specifications of the national curriculum, and the teacher has inevitably been replaced by an instructor, the person who delivers to a model designed by a committee of experts7. New teachers may be more focused on the classroom than their predecessors, but they are less aware of the multitude of tasks that make up a teacher’s job; they are less keen to run extra curricular activities and less imaginative about lesson planning. The idea that there might be ways to teach things that lie outside those programmes is heresy to most of these (new) teachers”8. Thesis 91: 28th August 2006