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Why classroom teachers need to step up to the plate

The interim results of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) survey of teacher readiness for the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) were as dispiriting as they were concerning.

They mirror the outcomes of earlier surveys in which 70% of respondents felt "barely confident" or "not confident at all" of their readiness to deliver the new qualifications on time. The results tell us much about how many teachers perceive their role in curricular innovation and in bringing about essential and rapid transformational educational change.

The blame game lies at the heart of the interim findings. Local authorities, Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the Scottish Government are all held to be culpable of failing to provide insufficient spoon–feeding in the form of additional support, time and resources.

However, successive EIS surveys have failed to define and exemplify the individual and collective professional responsibility of teachers to transform and improve provision at local and national levels. The pivotal role of individual teachers continues to be obscured by smokescreens on support, resources and the number of examinable subjects to be studied by pupils at various points in their secondary careers.

The blunt truth is that the professionalism and skill of classroom teachers will determine whether CfE flies or whether it crashes and burns. Much hinges on teachers' perceptions of both the need for curricular change and their part in bringing it about.

CfE was launched following widespread concerns that teaching had become too focused on exams with overly-prescriptive course content that did not allow the interests of pupils to be pursued. In addition, there was a view that skills such as problem-solving and team-working deemed vital to the changing demands of the future economy had little room to flourish in a system dominated by the rote-learning of facts to pass exams.

Professional conservatism is a characteristic of many teachers, particularly in the secondary sector. Yet, the success of CfE requires teachers, individually and collectively, to accept that transformational change is a continuing and accelerating process, not a one-off event. Some have yet to grasp the implications of global exponential change. Social, economic and technological change presents teachers with unprecedented challenges to develop and deliver a curriculum that prepares our young people for a world experiencing generational transformation.

Centrally-driven and prescriptive curriculum change can never be light enough on its feet to shape and deliver effective responses to local, national and international imperatives. It is down to teachers to step up to the plate to intellectualise, plan and deliver in ways that meet the needs of their pupils, within a more loosely defined national framework.

Many are uncertain what is expected of them. In part, this is a lingering legacy of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, introduced against a backdrop of industrial action. The 5-14 programme, Standard Grade and Higher Still were driven centrally. Programmes and materials were delivered literally by the lorry load. A dependency culture arose, subtly changing the teacher's role from professional to technician. Future reform requires the re-professionalisation of teachers to be proactive in continuous change to meet the short, medium and long-term needs of all of Scotland's young people.

Ultimately, successful change depends on consistent and high quality learning and teaching in every classroom and in every school. Ironically, at this crucial point, HM Inspectorate of Education has been absorbed into Education Scotland. I never enjoyed being inspected, but recognised that it helped us, individually and collectively, to raise our games. The danger exists that the inspectorate's absorption into a new amorphous body will blur and blunt its contribution to improvements in classroom practice. Additionally, the minimalism of published inspection reports tells parents and the wider world little about the quality and consistency of children's day-to-day experiences. It may not be too long before the inspectorate is reinvented in its original form.

However, even with a fully functioning inspectorate, it can be difficult to ensure consistently high quality classroom practice. There is ample evidence of classrooms in which young people are consistently sold short. Privately, many able and hard-working teachers agree that, for too long, the system has defended the indefensible. In a profession that requires ever-greater levels of flair and creativity, there is no place for teachers who consistently fail their pupils. A resigned shrug of the shoulders and: "That's just Mr X or Mrs Y" is not acceptable.

It may be helpful to reconsider the tenure of teachers and headteachers. Fixed-term contracts could help education authorities come to grips with the small minority of teachers who fail their pupils and colleagues. Flexible appointments to council areas rather than individual schools would allow councils, when appropriate, to move teachers more easily, placing the most talented where most needed. Undoubtedly that idea would create problems of its own and is unlikely to be universally popular. But we need to ask, whom are schools for? Flexible deployment would also lay the canard that pupils in high-performing schools do better because they have the best headteachers and teachers.

Teaching in schools in the relegation zone of the examination "league table" is not necessarily poorer than in the champions' league positions. In the former, teachers often have to run fast to get to the point where they can even start teaching a lesson. A former west of Scotland director of education visiting his "highest performing" school, assembled the senior students and asked how many had private tutors in one subject, two subjects and so on. Each time the response was a forest of hands. Point made.

Any system is as good as its individual parts. The success of our educational system, and CfE in particular, lies with classroom teachers. Additional resources and technology can assist teachers but never replace them. As Arthur C Clarke put it: "The teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be." The most vibrant and engaging curriculum is dependent on the quality of the medium through which it is transmitted, namely the individual teacher. After all, David Attenborough's Africa would be uninspiring watched on a 14-inch black and white television set.

Football mangers are powerless when players step over the touchline. Politicians and curriculum developers are in a similar position. The ball is now at the feet of classroom teachers. As international competitiveness intensifies, this is one world cup in which failure to qualify is not an option.

Doug Marr is a writer and former headteacher.

Ian Bell is away

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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