Tuesday, May 01, 2007

today : professionalism week part two

What I loved about The Trap was that it helped me crystallise the negative effect that target based cultures have on individuals within society. The issue is who decides the targets? Or more importantly, what are the things we target?

I don't object to improvement. For example, in my field - literacy teaching, there are clearly areas where institutions and individuals can improve. But what is 'improvement'? The fact is that pure statistical measurement in so many areas is a blunt and crude tool, and not the incisive analytical scalpel that it is portrayed to be by the Targetting Champions. If I am to measure the success of my teaching, then surely we must sit back and wait awhile. How far has my literacy teaching impacted on the students of mine who go on to become academics? Do some of them get a 2:1 instead of a first because I slightly failed to teach them to write succinctly and with clarity? Did some of them fail to get a crucial research grant that stopped them curing global warming and world hunger because their written arguments weren't put strongly enough?

What about those who go on to become dictators? Did my skillful coaching of them in the art of oratory contribute to their despotic rise? Was I Annabeth to their Toby: teaching them to address the podium, prescribing powder on their ever-expanding foreheads and thereby feeding their tyrrany?

The fact is that we don't know. The range and effect of my influence could be close to nil, or endlessly mutliplying logorhythmically even as we speak.

Yet as a school teacher I was measured by two pretty narrow and poorly framed sets of exams. Life success or my contribution to my students' over-all education didn't come into it. In a world where we are yet to explore and understand much of the infinite range of subtle influence on the development of people, how can we measure it?

As a professional, qualified and by implication, reflective worker I find that I am judged at every turn. The fundamental here is trust. My qualifications, experience and achievements are designed to inculcate this trust. We trust doctors on the basis that they need to be high achievers to even get into medical school and then study for years and years. Even then they go through a series of checks and finishing touches before we allow them to cut us open.

As a teacher, I imagined that my employers, students and other interested parties trust me to know my stuff and to deal with the education of my students in the way that I, having studied and qualified and reflected, am able to judge. Yet in my final couple of years in school teaching it became increasingly difficult to make choices, because my lessons were subject to pressures from all sides. The exam boards abolished my choice of appropriate exams because they've corporatised the matriculation process to the point where it is almost solely a profit making exercise for the boards themselves and a decreasing array of large publishers, whose books were invariably set for study. The DfES have reached a point where they pretty much send out detailed lesson plans, support materials and bullet-pointed lists of things that must be taught. This is the ultimate conclusion to the process whereby in order to set and measure the targets, everything must be inspected and checked and rechecked against lists of things to check. Then the checking is checked off against a list, and the checking of checking is checked. Oh what the hell, rather than give professionals professional freedom, why don't we just tell them what to do? It's simpler and cheaper and easier to check (which is why I now operate in the ever-expanding private sector of checking and moderating). Lessons were turned into government issued power-point presentations (and the most boring species of these - the ones where you are expected to simply read out what is up on screen). All these things robotised the process, replacing the broad and organic notion of education with the narrow 'learning'; and the broad and human concept of thinking with the robotic and narrow idea of 'skills'.

So where does that leave the 'professionals' - micromanaged and ordered exactly what to do from above by, often, non-professional people, working at the fear of their jobs, to targets that are so closely defined that they restrict choice, imagination and the risk-taking advancement of practice?

This robotisation of professional vocations is partly a way of depressing professional pay levels. An example of this is the way that the bottom has dropped out of the supply teacher trade. Unqualifed staff are now emplyed as classroom supervisors at a fraction of the traditional costs of qualified replacement teachers. It is an idea that, in some ways I support - if used wisely and with the best interests of the students at heart. However, many schools are consistently using unqualified supervisors for long periods of time, focussing the advantages on the saving of cash rather than the education of their students. Which is always the case with targets. They are sloppy, inexact things, and when they cross over with other priorities it is the shortcuts to budget cutting that always win out.

We may as well not have studied, sacrificed and specialised in the first place: a path that led away from excessive scrutiny and suspicion into areas of freedom and trust. Now the path leads the other way and the deprofessionalisation of professional vocations continues apace.

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