This is a draft of my next article for the Times Educational Supplement Scotland. It’s based on a previous post with a good dollop of ideas borrowed from my good friend John Connell.
I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.
Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).
Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, HMI, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.
By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises the differences between groups.
In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.
Perhaps some of the key drivers for this allegiance mentality are the hierarchies we have built up in Scottish education. Over the years we have evolved rigid and deeply layered hierarchies generating precisely the organizational mindset that promotes the top-down divisions of ‘us and them’
The ‘us and them’ attitude is therefore merely a reflection of the reality faced by most unpromoted teachers in the classroom, for instance, when they look at the phalanx of ‘managers’ piled high above them, both in school and beyond the school.
There is another critical element in this, and that is the almost total disempowerment of classroom teachers that has taken place over the past two or three decades. Teachers simply, in Scotland, no longer have any control over their own destiny to any extent that genuinely recognizes their skills, knowledge and commitment to what they do. People who feel disempowered cannot but help see those who have taken their power away as ‘them’ – no amount of care over use of language will change the structural fact of the situation that teachers find themselves in.
Yet there is hope. Two unique opportunities have aligned themselves in the firmament to challenge the dominant hegemony of multi-layered leadership structures and the “learned helplessness” of the profession. I am, of course, referring to our current and on-going financial crisis in public service delivery, and the Curriculum for Excellence. These two apparently disconnected events provide an imperative for change that has dramatically changed the landscape. In some of my more esoteric flights of fancy I see this moment as our equivalent of the cataclysmic events which wiped the dinosaurs from the face of the earth.
The challenge for us will be to see if we can evolve to survive in our new world. Or will the big beasts attempt to maintain their dominance? Striking out wildly in their titanic death throes at anything or everything within reach?
But what sustains me is my faith in our capacity to face up to reality. To see this as an opportunity to do things in a different way. To create a system which provides people with freedom to make informed decisions underpinned by a mutual interdependence.
Certainly the status quo is doomed. It may take one, two, three, four years or even longer but things are changing. I foresee a time when schools shift back to being rooted in their own communities. Where teachers are interdependent and where we challenge the dominance of “them” and shift to “we”.
Yet before I get too carried away in this euphoria of visioning it’s important to recognise that reality is tempered by a hesitance from all of us to embrace “real” change. Perhaps I should just sit it out for a few years and see if things really do work out as bad as they say things are going to be? Why should I give up the power that I’ve worked so hard over my career to attain? And in a similar fashion why should teachers accept the responsibility for the curriculum which has now been foisted upon them. Why not complain about “them”, sit on their hands, and wait until someone comes up with the great idea of telling them exactly what to do?