Education Viewpoint: A futile longing for the secret garden

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Patten rises to the Conservative Party conference rostrum next week for his first big speech as Secretary of State for Education, he will spend several minutes lauding the excellence of most teachers, and their efforts in helping to raise standards.

It is a safe bet that Mr Patten's attempt to soothe teachers' injured feelings will go almost unreported. Many teachers are of the view that they are unjustly abused as a profession. Any criticisms of their performance are splashed across newsprint and boomed over the airwaves; applause, by contrast, is ignored.

A survey of more than 3,000 teachers last month found that 'more positive portrayal by the media' is, by a wide margin, the factor that teachers most believe would improve their morale and motivation as a profession: 72 per cent cited it, compared with 57 and 56 per cent for reduced working hours and better pay.

Teachers are no different from any other professionals. Most take great pride in producing high-quality work. They put in time and effort beyond their contractual obligation. They care about their pupils. Politicians - and journalists, no doubt - should probably say these things more often.

Nevertheless, it is astounding that teachers' sensitivity about their public image should outweigh, as a motivating force, their desire for improvements in pay, reduced working out of school hours and better career opportunities. Are teachers really so badly bullied?

The survey - conducted for a group of teachers' unions by researchers from the London School of Economics and Institute of Education - was barely reported. But that was mainly because its findings were nowhere near as shocking as many teachers would have expected.

Too many teachers take it as fact that most of their colleagues are itching to quit a profession which has plunged into despair. The LSE/Institute report seems to suggest that teachers are no more fed up than other similar professional groups.

Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed said that they were satisfied, or very satisfied, with their present post; 28 per cent were not satisfied; and the remaining 5 per cent were 'not at all' satisfied. A sizeable proportion of the less-happy teachers wanted to move or leave the profession, but most of them were older teachers. It must be assumed that many of the rest of that group were dissatisfied with their jobs but not necessarily fed up with teaching altogether. And, one wonders, how many of the unhappy ones are not much good at their job?

Of course, teachers are not overjoyed; who is, in the depths of this long recession? Most teachers, rightly, feel that they are underpaid, but the central message of the survey is that most are fairly content.

The features that teachers believe contribute most to their personal morale and motivation are 'good relations with pupils' and 'being able to give pupils a sense of achievement'. But it is a mistake to think that teachers should accept a sense of dedication and commitment as the main reward for the job. Good teachers should be rewarded in the conventional way: with higher salaries. That is essential for their individual and collective self-esteem.

While teachers are also right to value good school management, time for their families and as low as possible a level of stress, the fact remains that to be so undervalued by the outside world causes most distress. But that is bizarre. I doubt that teachers are any less valued than other professional groups. It is hard to avoid concluding that many teachers are being too precious for their own good.

Take the recent GCSE row, for example. Many teachers seem personally affronted that ministers should voice doubts about the examination's standards. But those doubts were not directed at teachers; they were directed exclusively at the examination boards. Teachers seem to be offended even when they are not the target of criticism.

Anyway, was there ever a halcyon era when teachers were accorded the high social status for which they understandably yearn? Briefly, during the Seventies, they enjoyed decent pay, but that is not the same thing. Teachers should have enjoyed a higher status in the past, but they did not, so how can they miss it?

I suspect that what they really miss is the time they were left to run their schools and classrooms more or less as they pleased. Teachers are not really harking back to a golden age of social prestige; they are merely nostalgic for the secret garden. But it is a futile day-dream: the walls of that garden are buried rubble and will never be rebuilt. Whether teachers like it or not, parents, politicians and the press have stepped inside the classroom. The invaders may be ignorant, or arrogant, or both, but they are not going to go away.

Besides, if teachers have suffered a loss of social status, they largely have themselves to blame. The profession inflicted huge tactical damage on itself by taking strike action during the mid-Eighties, and only recently has it begun to heal that wound.

Of course, a great deal of reporting and comment on education is unjust to teachers, mainly because it concentrates on areas where performance is poor. But they do themselves no good by complaining that critical coverage is responsible for diminished social standing.

In its response to Mr Patten's White Paper last week, the National Association of Head Teachers said: 'The vast majority of parents have a great deal more faith in the teaching profession than the Government appears to have.' Parents, it added, wanted to 'place their confidence in the hands of able professionals whose abilities and advice they respect.'

That is exactly right. Able teachers can, and do, win respect where it matters: among parents. Armed with that justified esteem, there is no reason why teachers should wince at immoderate abuse.

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