Education: The View From Here - It is hard to foresee a time when schools become irrelevant

However necessary some shift from trust to accountability may have been, it has transformed the teacher's role
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST column of the last year of the millennium is a good time for reflecting back and looking forwards. As the Queen's Speech acknowledged, in education the immediate challenge facing the Government is to ensure that there are sufficient high-quality teachers. November's Green Paper shows that, nudged by the Treasury's "something for something" policy, it is putting its faith, for the time being, in performance-related pay.

But there are influential voices claiming that, soon, teaching will have been so transformed by information and communications technology that only a small specialist cadre of teachers will be required, capable of being recruited without difficulty from the increasing pool of graduates. In an extreme form, the argument is that schools themselves will become irrelevant.

It is remarkable, however, how little schools have changed since Roman times, in spite of the invention of the printing press, radio, television and the computer.

There are some who would suggest that this betrays a woeful lack of vision. But for me it underlines the enduring purpose of schools - to help the young to participate fully in their society and make sense of three-score- and-ten years on a lump of rock. Experience has shown that this is best achieved through actively coming together in the presence of someone who is able to pass on understanding to others.

It is likely, therefore, that there will be a continuing need in the new millennium to attract large numbers of good graduates to become teachers, people who must also be capable of using the latest technology to best advantage. There is no doubt that the many changes imposed on education in the last decade have failed to make this task any easier.

Not so long ago, the teacher-training institutions were able to attract nearly 70,000 applicants for some 50,000 places; nowadays there is a struggle to fill 30,000 places. In part, the previous popularity of the profession was because teacher training was seen as an alternative form of higher education, but it was also because teaching was regarded as a vocation. People were drawn to it by a sense of public service and, once qualified, they were free to teach what they wished, how they wished.

But over the years, in some cases, liberty lapsed into indulgence. Without any national checks of pupil performance until the examinations at the end of compulsory schooling, some wildly over-optimistic views of children's learning sprang up. Effort and practice came to be seen as unnecessary, indeed inimical, to learning, and it was felt that handling words and numbers would come naturally in the mere presence of books and other resources.

Faced with this nonsense, the Thatcher government embarked on reform. It put in place four main planks: a basic curriculum, setting down what no child should miss out on; national tests to check what the children were learning; inspections to see how the schools were doing; and a funding mechanism, which allowed decisions about spending to be taken as close to the classroom as possible.

New Labour has adopted these reforms as its own, and since coming to power has concentrated on providing the pressure and support to give them effect. This has often taken the form of setting targets, publishing and commenting on outcomes, and financially rewarding success.

However necessary some shift from trust to accountability might have been, it has transformed the teacher's role. Teachers are now subject to a new managerialism, in which they are continually having to account for themselves in ways which they feel do not always capture the true purposes of education.

In the past, many were drawn to teaching by the sense of being able to spend their lives in a worthwhile way, helping others. The salary may not have been very good, and the status may have been ambivalent, but they felt that they were able to take the important decisions for themselves.

Much of that autonomy has been taken away, without any compensatory attractions. In fact, berating teachers was to become one of the main ways of stabilising the system, so that it would accept reform.

This has left the Government with the urgent problem of coming up with a balance of potential satisfactions, which will make teaching an attractive profession in the new millennium. The Green Paper does not tackle this fundamental issue, and its version of performance-related pay will further undermine autonomy and security.

Paradoxically, the Government could achieve more by attempting less. It should have the courage to stand back and allow the new General Teaching Council to become a genuinely self-regulatory body. This would establish teaching as a true profession, alongside medicine and law.

But, above all, now that a necessary correction has been made, it should consider how the pendulum can be moved back more towards trusting teachers. With the guarantees of the national curriculum, tests and inspections, the Government should devise an equitable way of funding schools, and let them get on with it.

The writer is the Sydney Jones Professor of Education at the University of Liverpool