Teaching, like good parenting, is a demanding task for it is part intuition, and part expertise. It’s extremely hard to know when you’ve got it right. Parents and teachers delight in seeing the results of their labours, but often the most precious fruits of their work are those they may never actually see1.
Politicians can all too easily get in the way of good politics. It happened in 1986 when the determined and ambitious Kenneth Baker, who was convinced that he could find an easy answer to complex problems, decided to drag education out of the political obscurity in which it had been happy to reside since the 1940s. He made it the battle ground on which subsequent politicians would seek to build their credentials and on which armies of traditionally-minded teachers would be destroyed2. It started with yet a further bitter dispute about salaries. Teacher contracts had been, in terms of exact definition of their day-to-day responsibilities, about as vague as the unwritten British constitution. Teachers did what good teachers thought they ought to do. In general terms that meant they expected to work long hours in term time, and were partly recompensed by long holidays, considerable public respect, and a moderate salary. Teachers generally enjoyed their work, and often gave generously of their time, yet some of them, with the security of a salary for life, were largely detached from the changes and uncertainties that were becoming matters of daily concern for most other professionals. While few still sported Harris Tweed jackets with leather patches on their sleeves, these teachers were often in danger of being too cloistered for their own good, or for the good of those youngsters they were educating. Politically many of them were naive, and while disagreeing profoundly with what their union leaders said on television, took few steps to reassure the public at large that most of them were neither extremists, anarchists, militants or even liberals3.
It was when politicians started to take for granted teachers’ sense of vocation (doing the job because they thought it was the right and proper thing for them to do) that a massive dispute erupted about exactly what they were being paid to do. The row had been simmering ever since Sir Keith Joseph, the previous year, had forced through a new examination system that represented an amalgamation of GCE ‘O’ level with CSE. The new exam, to be called the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), was to be capable of assessing almost all pupils on a single six-point scale. Hailed as a revolution by politicians it was actually very conventional and retained the single subject as the unit of assessment4. It thus perpetuated the idea that it is only a GCSE grade A to C (the old grammar school standard) that is a qualification worth having.
There was a still deeper problem. The Plowden Report5 of 1967 had set out high ideals for a
form of primary education that, in the emphasis which it sought to place on how children learnt from experience, encouraged youngsters below the age of eleven to be far more critically involved in their learning, rather than being simply the passive recipients of what they were taught. Unfortunately no such critical thinking about how children learnt had ever taken place in the secondary sector6. About a quarter of primary-aged children had been encouraged to think like that, but the majority still sat in rows of desks and were dependent on teacher instruction. But it was when this significant minority of questioning eleven and rising twelve-year-olds moved into secondary schools that the trouble started. These youngsters were more interested in finding things out for themselves while their new teachers wanted all this knowledge expressed in terms of subjects which they, the teachers, controlled.
Growing pressure was being placed on teachers to pick up even more of those things which had previously been done by parents. There was a growing awareness amongst teachers that politicians, responding to the post-modernist philosophy that everyone should be free to pursue their own desires, no longer had the will or the courage to stand up to the general public and remind parents and communities of their responsibilities. Instead they opted for the politically easier option and simply heaped more and more onto the shoulders of the teachers7. “Whose children are they anyway”, asked exasperated teachers, “ours or the parents”?
Eventually a national contract was hammered out. In exchange for a significant pay rise teachers would in future be required to work for 1,265 hours8 a year on a maximum of 195 days, an average of just under six hours on a working day (not including marking and preparation time). This agreement became a two-edged and very sharp sword. For some teachers it showed them up for what they had not previously done, but for the vast majority it acted as a break on what they had earlier willingly accepted. Extra curricular activities were the first to suffer. In many schools what teachers had naturally done for pupils after school, at weekends, or in the holidays, just stopped. It was the disadvantaged child who was the greatest loser9.
In the long term the results have been profound, and have largely undermined the meaning of vocationalism as a task that has no defined limits. To a newer generation of teachers the very term “vocationalism” is now seen as demeaning10 of what they have been led to believe by the new advocates of “school business management” are their responsibilities. “Teaching is, after all, only a job”, wrote one of this new kind of headteacher in 2006; “What is difficult to achieve is changing the mindset of many of our colleagues, at both teacher and management levels, who think they must work every evening and much of their weekends, or they will be letting their students down”11.
Thesis 74: 25th August 2006