Notes From the Margins…

Kick your local teacher now!

  • January 14, 2012
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Apart from, say, deporting more asylum seekers or walking out on EU summits, there are few things politicians can do that are more guaranteed to warm the cold shrivelled heart of the Daily Mail than engage in a little bout of teacher-bashing.

The Mail‘s loathing of teachers is rooted in a reductionist insistence on an education rooted in the ‘3 Rs’, in its  ideological hostility towards ‘trendy’ teaching which often equates with the concept of a liberal education per se, and its loathing of the ‘militant unions’ which it invariably portrays – as most governments do –  as vested interests deliberately blocking ‘reform’ and stubbornly resisting any attempt to ‘raise standards’.

So it isn’t surprising that the toad-like monstrosity known as Michael Gove chose Dacre’s rag to give an interview in which he announced his new proposals to deal with ‘bad teachers’ – or that  a Mail editorial  praised these plans as an ‘overdue lesson in putting children first and finally restoring excellence.’

The main thrust of the government’s proposals, is that schools will be able to sack teachers within a term rather than the current period of a year.  From September onwards all teachers will be assessed every year according to a new set of professional standards.

All this has been presented by the government as  a ‘simpler and faster system to deal with teachers who are struggling’ – which seems to assume that if a teacher is ‘struggling’ then he or she should automatically be got rid of.    Gove has earned a reputation of being some kind of intellectual, but it is difficult to see why, when he makes fatuous observations like this:

“You wouldn”t tolerate an underperforming surgeon in an operating theatre, or a underperforming midwife at your child”s birth.  Why is it that we tolerate underperforming teachers in the classroom? Teachers themselves know if there”s a colleague who can”t keep control or keep the interest of their class, it affects the whole school.’

Gove’s dim populism ignores the fact that there can be many reasons why a teacher ‘underperforms’ and many ways of judging ‘underperformance’ – as Ofsted’s constantly shifting criteria often demonstrates, none of which  necessarily stem from the personal qualities or degree of expertise of individual teachers.

There is no doubt that some teachers are  incompetent and ‘bad’ – and that this can be frustrating for their pupils and their pupils’ parents.  But their ‘badness’ may stem from many different factors that are not necessarily rooted in their personal qualities, from class sizes to difficult pupils.

Judging teaching ability is not the same as assessing the result of an operation or a childbirth – both of which produce very clear results one way or another.  Despite the obsessive and often self-interested emphasis of governments on exam results as a measure of achievement, education is not always instantly measurable and nor are the strengths and weaknesses of those who deliver it.   As Alice Robinson, the president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers puts it

A lot of the time, when teachers are struggling, it’s the context. Some teachers may struggle in one school, but get excellent results in another. And a teacher who for many years has been teaching Year 2, and teaching well, might due to the school’s requirement be asked to teach Year 6 and struggle. And 12 weeks is a very short space of time to identify the problem, put in place help, support and guidance, and then see an outcome.

And contrary to Gove’s assertions, politicians do not make blanket statements about rooting out ‘bad doctors’, ‘bad soldiers’ or ‘bad policemen’, not to mention ‘bad politicians’.   For more than a decade politicians without the competence, integrity or gumption to stand up to the banks and financial institutions that are currently enforcing ‘austerity’ down the throats of the population, have relentlessly undermined and denigrated the teaching profession – or at least teachers who work in the state education system.

This isn’t just a Tory trait.  Labour politicians also like to present themselves as courageous iconoclasts challenging an intrinsically corrupt and reactionary profession that is supposedly blocking the pursuit of educational ‘excellence’.  More than any other profession, teachers have become scapegoats for the various pathologies produced by a dysfunctional and unequal society.

Ever since the vindictive Tory apparatchnik Chris Woodhead claimed that there were 15,000 ‘ bad teachers’ in the UK, politicians and sections of the media have subjected teachers to a level of inquisitorial scrutiny that is unimaginable in any other profession, regardless of the fact that Woodhead’s figures have been rebutted.

Now Gove has told the Mail that he would also like parents to enter the classroom ‘ in sensible numbers’ to assess whether teachers are doing their job properly, since

If a teacher knows they”re struggling, they will welcome someone coming in and saying to them afterwards how they can do it better. If a parent says, I would like to come along and watch when my children are being taught, then I think teachers should not be afraid and encourage that level of commitment.

Gove’s plans to put parents as well as soldiers into classrooms assumes, as much of anti-teacher rhetoric of politicians generally does, that teaching is something that anyone can do and that anyone can judge.   So perhaps surgeons should also allow members of the public to observe and rate their performance as well – in sensible numbers of course.

All it is likely to achieve is to undermine and demoralise teachers still further – especially if their ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ becomes dependent on their ability to meet the constantly shifting criteria of Ofsted and politicians.   When will a politician appear with the courage to say that teaching in an underfunded state education system is a difficult and challenging job, and those who do it deserve support, respect and recognition?

Don’t hold your breath.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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