The vocational nature of teaching has been eroded by successive government initiatives and we need to take action to preserve it, says Alex Alexandrou, chair of the International Professional Development Asscociation.

Setting out the problem

In his 1869 lecture John Ruskin, ‘The Future of England’, John Ruskin said:

‘Education is not a profitable business, but a costly one… No nation ever made its bread either by its great arts, or its great wisdoms. By its minor arts or manufactures, by its practical knowledges, yes: but its noble scholarship, its noble philosophy, and its noble art, are always to be brought as a treasure, not sold for a livelihood. You do not learn that you may live – you live that you may learn. You are to spend on National Education, and be spent for it, and to make by it, not more money, but better men.’

My interpretation of this statement is that society cannot put a price on education and teaching should always be regarded as a vocation due to the importance of education, not only to the individual but to society as a whole. However, developments during the past 30 years now lead me to believe that teaching is not regarded as a vocation by politicians, policy makers, parents and a growing number of teachers themselves. This is a worrying scenario, not only for the teaching profession but also for those that matter most – the pupils.

I believe it is time to start a debate as to whether teaching should still be regarded as a vocation or whether it is just a job. I will nail my colours firmly to the mast and argue that it should be and that a campaign be launched to ensure that key stakeholders publicly state that this is the case. They need to take action not only to stop the erosion of the vocational nature of teaching but also to ensure that future policies and legislation recognise teaching as a vocation.

To build up my argument I will seek to go back in history to show the importance of teaching as a vocation and then come back to the present to highlight some of the obstacles that need to be overcome if this campaign is to succeed. In essence what I am initially seeking to achieve is to begin another ‘great debate’ on education: 2006 is the 30th anniversary of James Callaghan’s ‘great debate’ Ruskin speech on the future of education and this speech will be my starting point.

Callaghan’s 1976 speech

In his famous 1976 speech, James Callaghan said that the Labour movment had always cherished education – ‘free education, comprehensive education, adult education. Education for life.’

He went on say that education prepares ‘…future generations for life’ and that ‘…the endowment of our children is the most precious of the natural resources of this community.’ Surely these sentiments alone indicate the important nature of teaching as a vocation and that following this line of argument we can be both realistic and idealistic when it comes to arguing that teaching is a vocation and not just a job.

Significantly, Callaghan stated: ‘I recognise that teachers occupy a special place in these discussions because of their real sense of professionalism and vocation about their work.’

Thirty years on and from my personal experience and observations as well as those of my colleagues this is still the case, but the teaching profession has been battered by politicians and other stakeholders continually changing the goalposts in terms of how teaching should be delivered. For example, changes to the curriculum, the introduction of SATs, league tables, numerous pieces of legislation and policies, continual change and upheaval at the education department both in terms of secretaries of state, name changes and internal reorganisation and rationalisation.

This has left the teaching community bereft of clear leadership and guidance at both the strategic and operational level. It is no wonder that teachers have been left befuddled, bewildered and at times unable to get on with the core task of teaching.

Callaghan hit the nail on the head when talking about dealing with change in education when he stated that: ‘we must carry the teaching profession with us. They have the expertise and the professional approach. To the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children. For if the public is not convinced then the profession will be laying up trouble for itself in the future.’

Prophetic words indeed, as I would argue that teachers have at times valiantly tried to get on with the task of teaching but have been used as a political football by both the Conservatives and Labour, who not only try to score points off each other but will always blame the teachers if a piece of legislation or a policy is either not implemented correctly or has failed. They use the media to attack teachers with bad news stories without admitting to their underlying failings as legislators and leaders. This leads an equally fickle public to turn on the profession either through physical or verbal attacks or by sending children to school who are unfit to take their place there due to a lack of discipline within the homes and communities they come from. Thus it is no wonder that the whole notion of teaching as a vocation has been and is being eroded.

Professional respect

Fifteen years on, James Callaghan was invited to give another speech at a conference in its honour organised by Swansea University. He said that the debate had still not ended and that public concern had become even deeper.

He highlighted a number of problems that Sir Claus Moser, the then chief inspector of schools had brought to the public’s attention with the warning that the UK and in particular England was in danger of becoming one of the least adequately educated of the advanced nations. This led him to surmise that ‘15 years later, after six secretaries of state and five new education acts,’ this was ‘the verdict on the past and the horrid forecast of the future’.

Plus ça change! After another fifteen years what has been done to really change the situation? More legislation, more changes in policy, even more secretaries of state and greater disenchantment among the profession and why? Because the key stakeholders are more interested in headlines, SATs and league table statistics than both the profession and the children.

Callaghan pointed out that there was no secret about how to achieve a better educated nation: ‘Good teachers are the key to well educated pupils. Yet Britain is short of teachers and not all those in post have adequate qualifications. It is said that their morale is not high; their pay too low; their status has been undermined by changes in society which makes their task more difficult; they feel overworked and their career development is inadequate.

‘There is a lot of truth in this dismal catalogue, but despite the shortcomings, I find wherever I go bands of dedicated men and women who care for their charges and whose professional pride overcomes their personal disappointments.’

Plus ça change!

He went on to say that in order to do better we had to start with the teachers, whose self-esteem mattered: ‘They must be given the confidence that they are professionally respected and trusted, and that they will be properly remunerated with a planned career. They must feel fully involved in planning the changes that result from the pressure of innovation…

‘I seem to remember that many teachers prided themselves on working whatever hours the job needed. I am sure they do still, and although the contract may make no difference to their performance, nevertheless it can forfeit a certain goodwill.’

These sentiments are as true today as they were 15 years ago and it is this continual erosion of the goodwill and morale of teachers that is in my opinion threatening the vocational nature of teaching.

Marginalisation of the teachers’ voice

In 1996, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Ruskin speech, Callaghan was asked to give another speech celebrating that momentous occasion and to give his views on the current state of play in relation to education. Yet again he highlighted a number of deficiencies and issues that had not been dealt with by the Conservative administration, which in turn I would argue directly impacted on the vocational nature of teaching and which still have resonance today.

He stated that great damage had been done to educational progress because teachers had been alienated by a government that treated them in a cavalier fashion. He saw teachers as being ‘bruised’ by the happenings of the 1980s and left with the feeling that the pulbic undervalued and misunderstood what they were trying to do.

On the other hand, he saw many teachers as having ‘an impressive dedication to their work and a pent-up enthusiasm which is waiting to be released.’

‘Teachers,’ he said, ‘must be enrolled as full partners in seeking answers to and carrying through the reforms that the next government will make… they are right to expect their voice to be given more weight than it has had in recent years.’

These words still have resonance today but is New Labour listening? No is the simple answer, as there is little or no evidence that this administration and the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) regard teachers as full partners in the policy making and legislative process. The teachers’ voice if anything is being marginalised and with that so is the vocational aspect of the profession.

Education, education, education

At the 1996 Labour Party conference, Tony Blair shouted out ‘Education, education, education’ and that education would be a key priority and policy issue for a future Labour administration.

Some may argue that it has been, but have the changes and the legislation introduced since Tony Blair came to power improved standards and the educational experience of pupils, and do teachers have a new sense of worth? The evidence suggests not and it seems that Labour’s educational policy is more about sound bites, and photo calls then it is about pupil attainment and teacher satisfaction and belief that they have a vocation.

Turn the pages of the Times Educational Supplement on any given Friday and the negativity is striking, particularly as the same issues are highlighted week in week out – excessive workload, exacerbation with the curriculum, work-life balance issues and disciplinary issues with pupils and colleagues.

Tony Blair and successive secretaries of state seem to have lost sight of where Labour wanted to take education a decade ago. In a lecture at Ruskin College to mark the 20th anniversary of James Callaghan’s speech, Tony Blair said: ‘Real change in education does not, however, simply flow from the development of good and radical proposals in manifestos. It depends on government and 400,000 teachers working constructively together in 25,000 schools.

‘Perhaps in this of all years, we have been reminded more starkly than ever before of just how teachers are the lifeblood and sometimes life-savers of the children in their care. This has, after all, been the year of Philip Lawrence and the year of Dunblane…

‘The country demands and our young people deserve an education system to match the best in the world. The next Labour government will set out to provide it.’

Losing sight of the wider role of education

This Labour administration has been in power for a decade and the evidence suggests that Tony Blair’s words were mere rhetoric and the reality is one of a disenchanted workforce that is not fully consulted; not regarded as a true partner and is being submerged by a workload and paperwork that is an anathema to teaching being a vocation.

 For teachers it is now more about ticking boxes to ensure that the DfES, Ofsted, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) and the General Teaching Council (GTC) England are kept happy rather than being truly empowered to educate and stimulate pupils in the classroom, let alone developing themselves to not only improve their performance but also take the profession forward.

Thus we must ask ourselves, where is the vocation in teaching? It is slowly but surely being eroded by paperwork, disenchantment and a curriculum that is not designed to benefit pupils.

As Professor Audrey Mullender, the principal of Ruskin College stated in an interview with The Independent in October of this year (to celebrate the 30th anniversary of James Callaghan’s speech), this present Labour administration has lost sight of the key goals and principles of education as espoused by Callaghan in his speech. These are to equip children to the best of their ability to be able to take their place in society; allow their personalities to flower and fit them to do a job of work.

She went on to argue that: ‘We feel the government has lost sight of this [wider role of education] and it is just looking at the work side of things. It is now all about employers and what they want.’

A sad state of affairs and compounded by the recent front page headlines in the Times Educational Supplement. The headline for 10 November was ‘Cash on delivery’ and if what follows is any indication then this Labour government will completely destroy the vocational nature of teaching as the article informed us that ‘Teachers will be able to increase their pay using evidence of their pupils’ results and attainments.’

The article explained that the TDA had said that schools would have to go through a ‘profound culture change’ to prepare for performance-dependent pay next September. New draft professional standards would go out for consultation and heads of department and other line managers would have to prepare themselves for the responsibility of recommending teachers’ pay.

Judged by the stats

Where is the vocation in this initiative? This system will undoubtedly be abused because of the pressures on teachers and their managers and the profession will be brought not only into disrepute but it will be just another job based on statistics. If a teacher does not have the ‘stats’ they will not be paid extra and will inevitably be labelled as a failing teacher.

Not only will teachers be judged by statistics but also by colours as the article informs us that: ‘The agency is preparing a colour wallchart for teachers, reminding them of standards to be met.’

Is this what the profession has come to and should it be accepted? Or do we stand up and rail against this type of initiative in order to ensure that teaching is a vocation and is regarded and respected as such by all the key stakeholders.

Such initiatives must be of concern to those who care about the profession, particularly in the light of the findings of Phil Revell in his book The Professionals – Better Teachers, Better Schools (Trentham Books, 2005), where he followed a cohort of new trainee teachers for a year and found that a significant proportion of them did not regard teaching as a vocation.

However, there might be some light at the end of this very dark tunnel if the headline in the Times Educational Supplement of 17 November 2006 is anything to go by. The headline was ‘Give us freedom to teach’, based on a survey carried out by the newspaper and it states that:

‘Two out of three teachers say the National Curriculum is too prescriptive and more than half believe classroom behaviour would improve if they could set their own curriculum.’

This is what vocation means – it means that teachers care for their pupils, care for their development and educational enrichment but will the powers that be listen? This is the type of challenge that should be laid down to the government and educational establishment.

One person who is not afraid to challenge is Phil Revell, who has done so in his recent book that was cited above. His challenge to the educational establishment may be the way forward…

Towards a definition of teaching

Revell challenges the educational establishment, particularly GTC England, by asking what its raison d’être is and that it should define what the essence of teaching is. In fact he challenges all the key players in education to define what teaching is because he believes that such a definition will ensure that people entering the profession understand what their role is and it will also help the direction of their training and development. This is an interesting line that he takes and one that will hopefully stimulate the next great debate that I asked for earlier. Significantly, he asks whether it is time for teaching to change and not just in the way teachers are trained but the entire process of teaching, arguing that teaching should follow the medical model and that the teaching profession should work in teams and not in ‘…splendid isolation’.

A challenge indeed, but a fair one as the medical profession is still regarded as a vocation.

Some radical proposals

Revell puts his money where his mouth is by not only highlighting key issues and asking key questions but also for coming up with a blueprint for change to deal with them and the changes he proposes are worth discussing. They include schools taking over initial teacher training; the theoretical component of teacher training to be drastically reduced; a set of qualifications to be attained so there is continuous development and only by attaining the higher level qualifications can teachers progress through the teaching ranks.

Revell proposes that the ITT year would lead to a qualified teacher status (QTS) that would allow a teacher to teach but not lead other teachers.

This would be followed by a three-year induction period in which teachers studied for a modular Master’s degree, which would include modules focusing on school-based research and educational theory. It could include specialisms, but would not be a  management qualification.

Acheiving the Masters qualification would confer professional teacher status (PQTS). Those achieving it could begin to move through the pay scale and would be eligible for promoted posts. Those failing to achieve it would remain assistant teachers whose pay would reflect their lesser responsiblities.

A radical approach and one that may meet resistance from a number of quarters.  Would Phil Revell’s proposed changes strengthen the vocational nature of teaching? The debate must begin.

The object of education

I would like to leave the reader one final thought taken from a letter by Philip Hall, head of business studies at The Edinburgh Academy, that was published in the Financial Times in March 2006.

Addressing a previous correspondent, he points out that a flight simulator is not an educational device but a training device, the object of which is to ensure all trainees do something the same way. ‘This,’ he declares, ‘is not the objective of education.’ 

‘The purpose of education, he says, ‘is to identify, develop and encourage the application of those unique talents and interests that make a child an individual.

‘In the process, it allows that child to realise both his own potential for a richer life and his capacity to contribute to the community.’

In his opinion, many politicians and examiners labour under the same  confusion between education and training.  But, he says, no machine can educate a child – this can only be done by a good teacher.

This is an abridged version of a paper originally presented at the November 2006 symposium of the The Standing Committee for the Education and Training of Teachers (SCETT), ‘The New World of Education’.