Ministers must be taught a lesson

They want the same things: so why are relations between Labour and teachers so strained? By Peter and Jo Mortimore
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The Independent Online
The teaching profession breathed something of a collective sigh of relief at the election of a Labour Government in 1997. Eighteen years of Conservative rule had led to a significant deterioration in relations between the Government and members of the teaching profession.

The new Labour Government, at that moment, could have had the teaching profession eating out of its hand. With publicly expressed, positive expectations of what teachers could contribute to the raising of standards, it could have drawn on the groundswell of support to create a partnership capable of developing an education system for the next century. So far, however, Labour has failed to capitalise on the vote for change which ushered it into power.

Instead, the education ministers have exhibited many of their predecessor's negative attitudes towards, and low expectations of, teachers. The power of positive expectations has long been recognised and many government reports have urged teachers to raise their expectations of pupils. Yet ministers seem unable to apply the same psychology to the nation's teachers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, despite action to cut class sizes for infants, despite extra cash for books and equipment, despite the plans for a general teaching council and despite a concerted drive to raise standards throughout the education system, many heads and teachers remain despondent.

The continued use of negative rhetoric by Government ministers, the naming and shaming of schools, spurious league tables of performance and a punitive Ofsted regime have continued to demotivate an already demoralised profession.

The failure to recognise the potential impact on achievement of social and economic disadvantage is a particularly wounding disappointment. It unfairly penalises many teachers who have chosen to work in the most difficult areas in order to do the most good. Many of them do succeed in "adding value" and in raising their students' achievements - by applying a degree of effort and commitment that is hard to sustain year after year.

Yet the Government and the teaching profession share many goals. Both want to help pupils learn more effectively. Both want schools to be happy and productive places. Both would welcome an injection of talented, committed and well qualified recruits. So why have relations become so strained?

In our view, the current malaise has two main causes: the failure of ministers to understand the psychology of teachers and the unwillingness of the teachers' associations to rise above their historical differences and unite in a single structure.

The Government's criticisms of teachers cannot all be dismissed out of hand. As in any profession, there are some people who resist all change on principle and some who are incompetent and who need to be weeded out. But these are a minority. Most teachers are following a vocation. They certainly did not choose teaching for high pay or for an easy life; they chose it because they believed they could make a difference to the lives of young people.

Part of the problem may be that teachers can easily appear over-defensive. This is not surprising given the poor press that they have received over the last 15 or so years. Teaching is a vulnerable occupation. Teachers spend much of their time isolated from their colleagues and surrounded by young - and, at times, badly behaved - children. As a result, although few would probably admit it openly, they can feel isolated and exposed. This vulnerability helps to generate a strong need for teamwork and for peer support.

Teachers' resistance to initiatives such as performance-related pay and advanced-skills awards stems from the premium that they place on teamwork and mutual support. Yet, too often, ministers and their officials appear to misinterpret this as misguided egalitarianism, which they then condemn as evidence of "a culture of mediocrity". This is a clear example of the Government failing to understand the psychology of the teaching profession and labelling as negative what is, in fact, a positive professional response.

The profession has developed from quite different roots and traditions - an Oxbridge MA for those destined for the public schools; the monitorial system (whereby bright pupils taught their younger fellows) and - eventually - a college certificate for the rest. In the last 40 years the normal qualification for teaching has risen from a two-year sub-degree course to a first degree plus a professional qualification.

Given the relative youth of the profession, it is not surprising that the public esteem of teachers has yet to reach the level of other longer- established groups, although surveys show that the general public trusts teachers more than many of those in better paid careers. But the different roots have created a problem: six major associations each with their own distinctive culture and traditions. This lack of unity fails to provide a clear voice for the profession and undermines its negotiations with the Government.

Surely the time has come to put aside professional differences, to recognise that unity is strength and to form a single teachers' association. One united body, working alongside the new General Teaching Council (just as the British Medical Association complements the General Medical Council) could play a more constructive role in the formulation of education policies and secure a better deal for its members.

Two changes, therefore, are necessary if the common goal of raising standards is to be achieved. The teachers' associations need to rise above their personal differences and unite in the interests of the profession as a whole. Ministers, for their part, need to put aside confrontational tactics and recognise that, without the support of those responsible for the implementation of policy - our teachers - the most inspiring leadership will come to nought.

Although many people will write off these aspirations as unrealistic, we think they might just be realised. Our conversations with heads and teachers suggest that there is considerable support for the creation of a single teachers' association.

There are also encouraging signs of a changed attitude among ministers - evident in the positive tone of David Blunkett's speech to the Labour Party conference and the abandonment of naming-and-shaming tactics. The promised green paper will show if this optimism about the Government can be justified.

Peter Mortimore is the director of the Institute of Education at the University of London. Jo Mortimore is a freelance educational researcher

A fuller version of this article will be published in next month's issue of the `Journal of Education for Teaching' (produced by Carfax Publishing Limited - enquiries@carfax.co.uk)

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