Belfast Telegraph

Our schools will only be as good as our teachers

The Government can set goals for pupils to achieve but teachers must have the final say in the classroom, says John Young

Education Minister John O'Dowd has an ambitious vision for our schools. He has "a radical and coherent set of policies", which will ensure that every pupil will have "a high-quality education, which both enriches their lives and grows the economy" and has committed himself and his department to achieving "excellence for all" so that "every school can be not just a good school, but a brilliant school".

The sad truth is that, however ambitious the minister is, his objectives are unlikely to be achieved. There may be some limited short-term gains, but there will be no transformation.

Our school system will not become one of the world's best, or give our young people the education they need and deserve.

This is partly because the minister's vision for education is uninspiring. It repeats what policy-makers around the world have been saying for years: we are falling behind our competitors and not equipping our young people to be economically competitive, so education outcomes must be improved. There is nothing remotely exciting about this vision, nothing to command support.

The second reason for expecting the reform programme to fail is that it is based on a model that, in spite of having been applied in many countries, has had little or no success because of the deeply flawed assumptions on which it is based.

This chief characteristics of this model, all of which can be found in what the minister plans for schools here, are:

• market-based competition: the assumption is that, if parents have choice, schools will compete for pupils and resources and their performance will improve;

• high-stakes testing and external accountability: the assumption is that, if schools are given the autonomy they need to compete, they must be more accountable to external bodies for their performance, those who fail to reach expected standards being punished;

• standardised and centrally prescribed curricula: the assumption is that, if schools are to be held to account for their performance, there must be mechanism for measuring it so that they can be compared;

• a focus on literacy, numeracy and science: the assumption is that these should be prime targets, with performance in them seen as the main basis on which the performance of schools should be judged.

Competition makes co-operation difficult, high-stakes testing makes teachers risk-averse and a focus on 'core subjects' drives others to the margins.

The effect of these policies has been to restrict teachers' autonomy, subject them to endless intervention and make teaching so unappealing that it cannot attract the best-qualified graduates to do it. That is why they have so consistently failed.

The third reason for anticipating the reform programme's failure is that it does not seem to understand that improved outcomes and better standards depend and are known to depend above all on what teachers say and do.

Research into the world's best school systems and why they come out on top found that, because the greatest influence on pupils' achievement is the quality of the teaching they experience, "the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers".

If we want a world-class school system, a competitive economy and a cohesive society, we need a world-class teaching profession with highly-qualified members, who are expected to take their continuous development seriously and given the resources to do so.

Central government needs to set out a clear sense of the goals pupils are expected to achieve, but teachers need to be given the tools and the freedom to decide what content and instruction pupils should have to help them reach these goals.

What we need is a school system that enables teachers to have maximum professional autonomy within a collaborative culture and there is little or no sign of that.

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