Saturday, 5 April 2014


A thought about the teaching profession.

Everyone is in agreement about the importance of the profession, or should be. It barely needs stating why – education makes social equality possible, teaches us how to be citizens (even if indirectly), and makes us smarter.

Still broadly accepted by most, but not quite as unanimous, is that teaching is a difficult job. It requires an all-round, all-defining commitment of time, character, and ethos.

Fine – agreed.

More contentious is whether the difficult, possibly vocational nature of the job means that outsiders – specifically ministers and civil servants – are not sufficiently qualified to tell teachers how to do it.

Many teachers, it seems to me, believe that those on the ground know how to teach, whereas ministers can only make under-informed, and therefore probably damaging, interventions.

I can see some truth in this position. But I think the teaching profession by and large has taken it too far – to the extent of disastrously misunderstanding the nature of their role. 

Important jobs are often difficult to perform. But important jobs are also the ones that need the most oversight and accountability. Don’t like getting a hard time from the management about standards? Then you shouldn’t have become a nuclear safety officer / air traffic controller / teacher.

These jobs are difficult because they are important. With so much at stake, more than usual needs to be done, and more carefully, by those doing it to avoid failure. And with so much at stake, and the possibility of adversely affecting so many people, more oversight is needed from government to make sure the public are protected.

So the teaching profession’s argument that the difficult nature of teaching is why government should keep its nose out simply cannot wash. Its difficulty is a symptom of the same factor that necessitates government oversight – proof, that is, of the opposite of what the profession argues.

‘You’re the one who chose to become a Marine .’

If you want to do one of the most important jobs in the country – and I’d say that guaranteeing the UK’s future as a decent, thoughtful, and prosperous place is hugely important – then accept that with this comes scrutiny as well as kudos. Scrutiny, standards, and the very real possibility of bollockings.

The thing with being a public servant is that you don’t get to define your position –the public does. And the public in this instance is represented by the elected government rather than the teaching unions. Which sounds about right.

Ok – counter-argument. Governments tread lightly around, e.g., the issue of an armed police force – as far as I know, there is no statute saying British police will not go armed. Commissioners could decide to arm their constables if they wished, and the government allows this decision to remain with them because the government doesn’t have the right to take out of policemen’s the right to decide for themselves what is proportionate self-defence.

Same goes, to an extent, with the armed forces.

So does this justify the teaching profession’s ‘hands off’ attitude? Not really – the police and armed forces are still regulated to within an inch of their lives (rightly), and besides no one’s actually going to get killed, hopefully, in a classroom. Also important, I’d say, is that the armed forces at least are more effectively self-disciplining: superiors must keep their subordinates in check, not least by making sure they behave according to the aims and laws prescribed by the government. 

I don’t think headmasters or the teaching hierarchy behave as a cross-check in any comparable way whatsoever.

When I worked as a teacher (I wasn't very good at it) I replaced an unwell but also outrageously time-serving teacher who (a colleague of the teacher told me) over fifteen years teaching philosophy produced not one single teaching resource.

An utterly tame inspection system meant she got away with this. Although, in fairness, she was eventually constructively dismissed, she went on to bring a case against the school, which she won, naturally. I doubt they counted at the tribunal how many students she had let down over the years.