When teachers are trusted, pupils can excel

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The Independent Online
Whenever one of our national politicians highlights the deficiencies of our education system, he or she invariably cites Germany as a country where things are done better and results are higher. We are told German children are generally more advanced at all levels than their British peers and that our schools have a lot of catching up to do. These negative comparisons were often used to justify the need for the national curriculum, the plethora of national tests and the cycle of Ofsted inspections which are now prominent landmarks in the education of our children.

One could be forgiven for believing that if the German system is so much better than ours, it might already possess some of the centralised quality control systems that we have introduced over the last decade. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, as I discovered recently when I visited Schillerschule, our German exchange grammar school in Frankfurt.

My first shock came when I found our German exchange teacher marking the examination papers of his Upper Sixth students. He not only marks the Abitur (the equivalent of our A-levels), but he also sets the examination and gets it ratified by the local education authority. Further questioning showed me that teacher autonomy in regard to examinations is widespread throughout the German system. Pupils in schools in 13 out of 16 states are given course grades based on performance in teacher-directed activities such as tests, quizzes, class participation and homework assignments. Pupils are constantly assessed, but the teachers are the main players in this assessment. Moderation is done within the school. The teachers are trusted to maintain standards and no elaborate system of national testing or checking appears to be required. One wonders if the performance of British pupils might, at a stroke, rise if we examined in such a way.

Central government seems to play a minor role in educational policy development in Germany. Broad policy decisions and objectives for schools arise from meetings of the Ministers of Education from each of the states. Each of the 16 states develops its own curriculum guides, recommends textbooks and organises schools and teaching. There is no system of national inspections or control. The regional authorities are responsible for inspecting all teachers and this should be done once every five years. However, this is far from the case and many teachers only ever see an inspector if they are being assessed for promotion.

Under such conditions of inspection, it might be assumed that the headteacher has a high-profile role in evaluating teachers and their performance, as is presently being promoted in this country. Again, this is not the case. Heads only rarely conduct classroom observations and write written evaluations and generally play little part in teacher selection. The head's work in German schools seems to be that of a general manager. They review lesson plans to ensure that the local curriculum is being followed and negotiate with teachers about how to spend the limited budget allocated for funds and equipment. The head's main role appears to be that of public relations officer. The relationship with the local authorities is important because there lies the route to extra funding.

It would appear that the Germans obtain their allegedly higher standards with control systems far more relaxed than ours were before the educational "revolution" of the late 1980s. Perhaps, as Gillian Shephard has already pointed out, we ought to take a less mechanistic approach. We ought to trust our teachers more, as the Germans do, and concentrate on creating a cultural climate in which a larger number of people can see the value of education.

In the meantime, our politicians might consider the words of Professor Edmund King, a comparative educationist , who wrote that, "You cannot comment upon education in one country simply from knowledge of education in another."


The writer is head of Rutlish school in the London borough of Merton.