Leading Article: Please Sir, stop whining

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The Independent Online
Easter: season of showers and teacher conferences. And this year a strange inversion is taking place. Not too long ago Conservatives used to aver that teachers were responsible for most of the ills of society. "Trendy teachers" were busy turning the nation's children into illiterate lesbians and vegetarians. For Labour, on the other hand, teachers were beleaguered professionals, struggling to instil learning into the human casualties of recession.

Not any more. This week has seen Gillian Shephard's charm offensive. If you haven't got enough money, if you're suffering, tell me about it - I am on your side, she reassured them. They applauded. David Blunkett, however, went to Harrogate not in peace, but with a sword. His message was that Labour would take tough action to improve failing schools. He was prepared, if necessary, to sack heads and governors and redeploy staff. They didn't like it.

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Peter Smith, accused Mr Blunkett of "out-Torying the Tories". Even more significantly the TUC chief, John Monks, hoped that Labour was not "adopting the style of football clubs who sack the manager when the team is at the bottom of the league". Mr Monks said he did not defend poor schools, but where teachers were doing their best against insurmountable odds it was wrong to single them out for blame.

Mr Monks's analogy was unfortunate. Football clubs who sack their managers are almost always right - ask the supporters of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton or Aston Villa. They understand that good management makes all the difference, regardless of resources. Similarly, virtually every study of school performance ever conducted has concluded that the key to success is a good headteacher. That is why there are good schools in areas with "insurmountable problems", as well as lousy ones. Mr Blunkett's approach makes sense.

But he was not the only one under fire in Harrogate yesterday. Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, was subject to a blistering attack. Ofsted inspectors were rude, asked irrelevant questions and took up valuable time, complained the teachers. One delegate told the conference that his school had employed supply teachers for several weeks while senior staff wrote reports for Ofsted. Furthermore a union survey showed that half of its members believed that the fear of inspection "led to increased teacher absenteeism". This was "much more than teachers whining", said Peter Smith.

No it wasn't. Ofsted is doing the job that government and parents want it to do. It is true that in recent years teachers have had a lot to put up with. There has been constant change and unrelenting criticism. But this has been compounded by an approach from the unions in which every reform or suggestion has been rejected. Teacher appraisals, league tables, parent power, testing and the national curriculum have all been opposed. A form of professional oppositionalism has set in, which resents any attempt to judge teachers by the same criteria as the rest of us.

It is self-defeating. The emphasis that all the political parties are now placing on education means that more imagination, more flexibility, more accountability and better management are being demanded from Britain's teachers. In return they may at last get the resources for which they have campaigned. A new contract is being offered by politicians - Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat - to the educationists. When they have finished complaining, they should sign it.

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