There is a mystique about teachers of the past, as there is about much else, and the idea that change is always and only for the worse is as ill-conceived as it is pervasive. Yet over a generation or two something does seem to have changed. Not necessarily in the calibre of teachers – arguably they must now be better qualified than ever – but in their social standing and the regard in which they are held by the population.Being ‘better qualified’ is actually no basis for assuming they are better at their job, of course.
Far be it from me to point to the rapid decline in literacy and numeracy standards…
An aura of respect – which may always have been exaggerated – has dissipated. And instead of being bracketed with doctors and lawyers, teachers are now more likely to be classed with the local council staff whose strike they shared yesterday.That ‘aura of respect’ is vanishing not just for teachers, but for other public servants – the respect once given to doctors and lawyers is fast running thin.
It would be easy to blame teachers' own conduct for the shrinking public regard in which they are held – and to cite their willingness to strike as supporting evidence. In fact, though, teachers are not particularly strike-happy. Their last strike, mounted by only one union, was three years ago, over pay, and it was the first national strike for 21 years. The inflammatory rhetoric heard at teachers' annual conferences gives the impression of greater militancy than actually exists.Indeed. The strike on Thursday wasn’t even very well supported.
Something more has to be going on. As it happens, a survey on the status of teachers in England was compiled for the Department for Education in 2007 – and it is telling. Not only does its very existence show that the then Government had the status of the profession in its sights, but a central finding was that teachers' status had declined sharply over 40 years: from a high of 4.3 (on a scale of 5) in 1967 to a low of 2.2 in 2002, although it had recovered a little, to 2.5, by 2006.Ouch!
The survey reported that rank-and-file teachers were equated in the public mind with social workers, while the analogy for head teachers was with management consultants.
Tests and league tables had further repercussions. While they raised the standing of teachers in high-performing schools, they depressed that of teachers in poorly scoring schools. And by giving parents more information, they helped to "demystify" teaching, making it look more like a skill or a craft than a profession.Awww, say it ain't so!
Why is teaching stuck in the doldrums here? Partly because pay for doctors and top lawyers has spun off into the stratosphere in a way it has not on the Continent. Partly because, despite rewards for excellence, the cult of management, with its super-heads and super-schools, is destroying the professional solidarity that exists elsewhere – and communicates some strange messages about what constitutes educational success.Yes, clearly it's all the fault of those teachers who don't stick to the spin that everything in the garden is rosy, eh, Mary?
But mostly it is because so many teachers today denigrate their own profession – quite unreasonably – as low-paid drudgery. Until they take more pride in what they do, parents and public have little choice but to accept teachers' negative self-image as their own.
Of course, if Mary really wondered why the status of teaching is sinking in the public's eye, she could do worse than read the comments here...