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Debate: The last word

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

Why are teachers more disgruntled with the Government than ever before?

John Coe

It was sad that the usually polite headteachers at their annual conference heckled Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister, when she insisted that tests and tables had to stay. Silence is the acceptable way of showing dissent and shouting at a guest is not good form. So why were the Heads moved to rudeness? I think it was more than the issue itself because opposition to tests, targets and tables is so widespread that it has to be a given. Even the House of Commons Select Committee is calling for reform and the Government is desperately scratching around to find a politically-acceptable alternative.

Beyond testing

The shouting revealed a deep-seated malaise which is eating at what should be a partnership between democratic government and the teaching profession.

‘The more we (teachers) have ownership of new policies the more likely they are to succeed’

Look at the policy initiatives which have come from the Government in recent years. Individualisation – matching learning to each child as a person. Of course we agree, this is the primary tradition. It is how we were trained. Differentiation – splendid. Alongside the children as we are, how could we do anything else other than meet their widely different needs? Inclusion – we agree. Children with special educational needs should be in our mainstream classes. Work force reform – much appreciated. After all, we started it years ago by inviting parent volunteers into our classrooms to help the day run smoothly. Every child matters – at last an overdue recognition of the link between background and attainment. This is now beyond question and we have known it all along. Assessment for Learning – we know how important it is and how you cannot teach without constantly assessing progress. We’ve always done it.

What has gone wrong?

Six policies and each one wholly acceptable to the primary profession. Yet the shouting continues and the malaise runs deep. What has gone wrong? Well, many things over many years. Here are three: firstly, and most importantly for that key worker – the teacher, the Government has failed to deal with class sizes. Why on earth should classes in secondary schools be smaller than primary? It’s a historical hangover and should be put right. All the policies I’ve listed cry out for smaller classes. Give us 20 children, or at least a programme which promises this.

Secondly, there’s the bureaucracy. The more time we have to teach – the better children progress. We object to the time-wasting paperwork which has been attached to it. Start trusting us.

Thirdly, and this is at the heart of the discontent, teachers simply do not feel that they are partners in what happens. Streams of well-intentioned initiatives are beamed at our schools. Consultation is brief and it never changes anything. Top-down direction is what it is and teachers are merely required to do what has been decided elsewhere. A truly radical shift is needed – teachers must become equal partners. The more we have ownership of new policies the more likely they are to succeed. Smaller classes, slimmed down bureaucracy and a new partnership. This will stop the shouting.

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