Want to develop a 'can-do' culture? Try saying 'You can' to teachers

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The Independent Online
"Can you...?" The Government's biggest challenge in schools is to get teachers, pupils and parents to say "yes" to its new initiatives. A new "can do" culture is needed if the promised standards revolution is to get off the ground.

Last month, David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, announced that each school would receive an extra pounds 1000 for books. Teachers' response was grudging. Too little, too late, they said. At a press briefing, Mr Blunkett muttered darkly that one day teachers would welcome one of his initiatives to help them.

Jeremiah-ism isn't, of course, confined to education. Mrs Thatcher clearly felt much the same as Mr Blunkett when she appointed Lord Young to her Cabinet, insisting that he was someone who brought her "solutions, not problems".

But, at present, the no-can-do tendency in schools is a powerful force. Ministers set targets for reading and maths for 11-year-olds for the year 2000 and the vast majority of heads say they're too difficult.

Even Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's charismatic and energetic chief education officer, has had to work hard to persuade some heads to back his standards-raising enterprise. He found that the city's heads were reluctant to commit themselves to ambitious targets.

The trouble was, they argued, that they had no control over changes in the ability of each year's intake. Professor Brighouse solved the problem by posing a series of questions to the heads. They were asked to say whether standards in their school had risen in recent years - answer, in most cases, Yes - and whether that was the result of change in intake or the school's efforts - answer, efforts not intake. Game, set and targets to Professor Brighouse.

Three years on, Birmingham has just won praise from inspectors for its success: test and exam results are improving faster than they are both nationally and in other comparable authorities.

Teachers' gloom is understandable. Battered by years of cuts and criticism from the previous government, dizzy with new initiatives, they are probably more demoralised than at any time since the second world war. Unlike politicians, they are faced with the daily challenge of the struggling nine-year-old whose single mother has three other children by different fathers and no energy to spare to help with reading. Ministers keep saying that poverty is no excuse for underachievement. But surely, teachers contend, you can't write it out of the script altogether.

They have a point. Nor can ministers discount the demoralisation which is a legacy of the last Government. A belief among teachers that they can make a difference is the key to raising standards. But ministers have to play their part in creating that belief.

They won't achieve a new can-do culture by constant talk of incompetent teachers, failing schools and zero tolerance of failure.

So far, a number of high-profile initiatives have conveyed the idea that, though ministers have set ambitious targets, they have niggling doubts about whether teachers can achieve them: the profession still feels threatened and undervalued. No successful school would make the same mistake.

Take Mrs Heather Jones of Yardleys School in Birmingham, one of the country's most improved schools. Her pupils come from a run-down part of the city but she tells them: "Go for it. Make it happen. They know I believe it."

Some of Mrs Jones' pupils will not "make it happen" as much as she would like but they will still progress further and faster because she believes in them.

Unless the Government follows her example, the whole standards-raising enterprise will collapse.