SCMP Saturday, January 6, 2001

Teachers need to be valued


Towards the end of last year, Britain's Lady Plowden died. In 1967, the national education committee she chaired published the report, Children and Their Primary Schools. It was arguably the most significant document in the history of English primary education, although the philosophy it embraced had earlier roots.
That it influenced a generation of primary educators in Britain and beyond is without doubt, as is the fact that it subsequently became the focus of much criticism, usually ill-informed and often politically motivated. The 'great debate' led eventually to major changes in policy, some of which have influenced educational developments in Hong Kong.
In 1967, I was in my first year as a primary school teacher. The Plowden Report opened with the statement: "At the heart of the educational process lies the child." It is a tenet that I still hold to and one which our English Schools Foundation (ESF) primary schools uphold.
But, from my conversations with teachers newly recruited to ESF from British schools, it is difficult to believe that the Plowden assertion still holds true there. An overloaded and rigidly defined curriculum with an over-emphasis on testing a narrow band of core subjects has displaced the child from the centre.
The ESF has its own Entitlement Curriculum which ensures our students follow a similar course of study whether they attend school on Hong Kong Island or in the New Territories.
Where then is the difference? Why do our recently arrived British teachers breathe a sigh of relief even when they realise that the pace and professional demands of teaching in an ESF classroom are considerable.
Of course there is the excitement of a new country and a new challenge and the joy of working in multicultural schools with motivated students, supportive parents and committed colleagues. They appreciate, too, the quality and quantity of teaching resources, not least in information technology.
But there is a fundamental difference that transcends all these factors: they feel valued as professionals.
Our Entitlement Curriculum is based on the British model, adapted to the context of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but it was introduced into our schools at a realistic pace and with the full involvement of the teachers who teach it.
There was no politically driven, unrealistic timetable as there was in Britain, where 12 years ago, as a school inspector, I led a team of senior professionals in introducing the National Curriculum to bewildered and anxious teachers from over 300 schools.
ESF has a rigorous programme of student assessment that is checked each year between schools to ensure consistency. It is used to inform teachers and parents as to children's progress and what learning should come next. It is not used to compile a crude league table which sets school against school on the basis of results which take no account of student background.
British teachers, during interview, often admit that they teach to the test and ignore subjects such as art, physical education and music until late in the school year when the dreaded tests are over. Who can blame them when schools have to compete in an unfair contest to ensure that their school is not 'named and shamed' with the consequent loss of students, funding and teachers' jobs?
ESF schools are inspected by independent teams of external inspectors. Their reports are made public. The inspections are stressful for teachers but they are designed to reveal school strengths and weaknesses and to lead to continuous improvement.
In Britain, the stress is compounded by the singling out of 'failing schools' in the full glare of publicity.
Humiliation and pressure do not create a climate for learning. Success leads to success and high expectations and support are much more likely to lead to genuine and sustained improvement.
When the National Curriculum was first introduced, the then education minister assured teachers that they may be told what to teach but not how to teach. Even that freedom is now threatened. Not only do Britain's Literacy and Numeracy Hours dictate how the teacher will teach, but the lesson is divided into time segments expressed in minutes. The accompanying paperwork is onerous.
Let policy-makers beware of the consequences when, in the name of reform and quality assurance, the members of a noble profession are assigned the role of the operative. There is more to education than a few notches up the league table and much is lost when judgment and wisdom play second fiddle to blind obedience and bureaucracy.
David Coles is the ESF's Primary Education Officer