Education special 2: Let the teachers teach

Teifion Griffiths argues that centralised micro-management is behind the school failings highlighted in the latest PISA results

If we are to raise standards in our schools, every effort must be made to bring teachers on board.

We shouldn’t be too thrown by the OECD’s recent PISA survey results of pupil attainment in our schools and make knee-jerk reactions. They need to be viewed  over a longer period, which the PISA survey always intended they should be. Strange things happen.

In 2001, after over 40 years of comprehensive education in England and Wales, we figured in the top ten in all three measures. We far outperformed Germany and France but this largely went unnoticed. When it was occasionally referred to in the press the survey was rubbished by the right-wing press as statistically flawed!

Why did we do so well in 2001 and relatively badly in 2011?

My suggestion is that in the last twenty  years there has been a massive increase in central control of the curriculum (the National Curriculum), a huge growth in inspections, testing and league table comparisons (in England) and a slavish regard for examinations. This has lead to a growth in the assumption that everyone knows better than headteachers and their colleagues as to what should happen in schools.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ recent speech on how he intends to tackle under-performance in our schools is just one other example of that  lamentable tradition.

I know that the current administration is not responsible for the dreadful funding of our pupils. I am also aware that money alone is not going to solve all our problems. However, there comes a time in the ‘comparison game’ when the difference of funding per pupil makes comparisons unfair. I believe that has now happened in relation to  Welsh pupils. That should now be our major concern.

If we are to succeed in a desire to  raise standards in our schools, which is something we should all aspire  to,  every effort must be made to  bring teachers on  board. Without their support any initiative will surely fail. It is alarming that we appear to be moving towards micromanagement.

We regularly hear from politicians of the importance of history but ironically they themselves don’t appear to  learn the lessons it teaches us. Many of the practices they employ and  continue to propose have long been discredited. Several of the ‘initiatives’ have about them echoes of the Payment by Results policy of 1863, introduced to help control the curriculum and to ensure that public money was  well spent. By the 1890’s the system had to be abandoned mainly because  teachers had to teach to the tests and also because the narrowness of that  approach left us far behind our European neighbours who adopted far more  enlightened approaches. Another thing which scuppered that approach of “economic utilitarianism” was the huge growth of red-tape which led to massive  administration costs. We appear in danger of following this route. The ‘Gradgrind’ system totally failed then; why should it succeed now?

The expense of introducing some of the proposed initiatives means taking further moneys from the budgets of Welsh schools which are already cash-strapped. Examining, testing and governors’ training all have costs which schools eventually pay. Welsh pupils are already badly served, attracting well over £600 per pupil less than in England.

Teachers are at the front line of education, not inspectors, advisers, governors, bureaucrats or politicians. In recent years one might be excused for thinking this is no longer so. The same justification is put forward as was used one hundred and fifty years ago. These people are ‘looking after public money’. They are in fact wasting it. Already a number of newly qualified teachers never enter the profession and some leave after a very short time.

We need to ask ourselves why. In my experience  young teachers are distressed by the bureaucratic approach they have to endure and the vast amount of unnecessary paper work they encounter. In recent decades the profession  has been submerged in costly ‘initiatives’. Unsurprisingly these same initiatives have the effect of destroying initiative in the classroom.

I am by no means making an appeal for a laissez-faire approach. We need to pursue excellence at all levels; but  history and recent developments have surely taught us that this cannot be  achieved via a demoralized profession beset by a culture of testing and target setting.

I was particularly sad to hear Leighton Andrews adopting such a dismissive and aggressive tone towards teachers in his speech. It reminded me of the awful days when Keith Joseph was in power. Is it his intention to deprofessionalise teachers, giving them, as well as their pupils, yearly tests? Hopefully he will change tack when he has considered further.

More teaching, not more testing is what is required. By all means ensure rigorous professional training for those who  come into teaching, but then let them get on with the job.

We should all be aware by now that the great  failings in education governance over recent years have been caused by draconian interference from central government and a massive growth in bureaucracy. This has been particularly obvious in England. We don’t want this to happen in Wales.

The current view ‘on the street’ is that teachers are already overburdened and have their energies diluted to the detriment of their performance in classrooms. No future plans will succeed unless they are freed to teach. Politicians should be looking to relieve them of these burdens and getting them onside.

Putting forward contentious policies at the end of an administration could be dangerous. Is it also a wise thing to do this a month before the March Referendum? I know it is wrong to conflate Welsh Government policy with a vote on further powers but this is what some people will do. I have already heard some who were going to vote ‘Yes’ have now changed their minds. What a pity! If there is a very low turnout it could be bad news. Leighton Andrews, who is masterminding the Yes campaign on behalf of First Minister Carwyn Jones, could be shooting himself in the foot.

Teifion Griffiths was Headteacher of St Teilos comprehensive school in Cardiff between 1983 and 1999.