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On A Short Leash – Why Can The Public Trust Teachers, But Not Politicians?

Schools run on trust – so what chance does learning have when the government keeps teachers on such a short leash, asks Sue Cowley...

  • On A Short Leash – Why Can The Public Trust Teachers, But Not Politicians?

Trust is a very interesting concept, because it’s only possible to earn someone’s trust if she’s willing to trust you in the first place. If you never hand over your trust, no one can ever let you down – but you’ll probably lead a rather sad and lonely life.

Unfortunately, trust is easily shattered and can be very hard to rebuild it once it’s gone.

“Okay, you can go to the toilet just this once,” you tell little Jimmy, because he’s been moaning and wriggling for the last 10 minutes, and you don’t really fancy having to mop the floor. “But be quick, and be sure to come straight back.”

15 minutes later, you send out a search party to discover the whereabouts of little Jimmy. The search party returns with the news that the sinks are overflowing in the toilets, the school sign is wrapped in loo roll, and Jimmy is busy spray-painting an unrepeatable message about the headteacher on the playground wall. It’s an awfully long time before you’re ready to let little Jimmy out of your sight again…

No progress without failure

Trust plays a crucial part in teaching and learning, because we often have to ask the children to do something that might go wrong. Without failure and mistakes, there can be no progress. Every time we trust the children with the paints, the scissors or the computer equipment, there’s the chance that things could go pear shaped. Yes, my child did once cut her fringe with the scissors, and yes, she did look odd for a little while – but her hair soon grew back, and she knows how to use scissors now.

Unless we trust children, there’s no way they can find out how to be responsible, or to make good decisions, around learning and behaviour. As a friend once said to me when our children were small, “I don’t worry about him making a mess with the paints, because it’s more important for my child to enjoy being artistic than it is for me to have a clean carpet”.

Trust is absolutely critical in the relationship between the school and the home. When parents and carers send their children to us to be educated, they are handing us the most precious thing in all their world. We are ‘in loco parentis’, and it’s a massive responsibility.

This is why it’s so stressful to take children out of the confines of the school environment and on a school trip. I once saw some teachers trying to get their children from one side to the other of an extremely busy road outside the Houses of Parliament. A small group of them got trapped in the middle of the road when the lights changed, and you could literally smell the fear.

An erosion of trust

Over the last 10 or so years, trust in schools and in teachers has been eroded, as though it were a cliff being worn away by the sea. The level of oversight and accountability that we face has reached an all-time high. Not only do primary schools have Ofsted keeping a close check on them, but also the threat of academisation should they fail to meet the latest (seemingly arbitrary) targets.

A series of tests now punctuate the primary years, and the stakes for these are incredibly high. Nicky Morgan recently suggested that yet another test will be brought into Y6, this time to check whether children can remember their times tables. After several years of Michael Gove referring to dissenters as ‘the Blob’, many teachers feel battered and embittered by the feeling that nobody trusts them to do their job, unless they’re being testing all the time. It’s hardly surprising that a recruitment and retention crisis looms.

If politicians had any sense, they would trust teachers to do the job. They would find the right people, support them, encourage them, train them and challenge them – but in the end, they would leave them alone to get on with what they do best, which is of course to teach.

According to the latest Ipsos MORI Veracity Index, 86% of the British public trust teachers highly, while only 21% of them trust politicians to tell the truth.

The irony of this will not be lost on those teachers, as they read the latest missives on accountability from the barely-trusted-at-all-politicians at the DfE…

Sue Cowley is an author and teacher trainer; her latest book about her family’s adventures in learning while travelling, Road School, will be published later this year. For more information, visit www.suecowley.co.uk or follow @Sue_Cowley

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