Scottish Review Excerpt

The Kafkaesque surveillance of our schools: Walter Humes

As Scottish schools re-opened last week after the summer holidays, a rather unusual event took place. Amid the excitement of the start of the new session, a dissident voice was raised.

In an article in the Herald, a headteacher launched a full frontal attack on what he saw as the oppressive bureaucracy of the Scottish educational system. He questioned whether the experience of most pupils was enjoyable and enriching, and whether it was truly educational, in the sense of providing memorable insights which continued to have value later in life.

Instead, schools had been transformed into ‘little more than qualification factories, where learning has become a task to be endured, where the outcome or sole purpose of school is to lead pupils into further or higher education’. Institutions that should ‘inspire, motivate, support and encourage’ were ‘nothing more than workplaces’, in which teachers felt compelled to follow increasingly deluded directives from above.

The headteacher went on to list many of the administrative requirements that deflected attention from the real aims of schooling – development plans, whole-school self-evaluations, performance indicators, pupil tracking systems, benchmarking, dimensions of ‘excellence’, assessment instruments, etc. Much of the information generated by these requirements, he argued, had very limited value – so much so that he intended, in his own school, ‘to have a bonfire of the paperwork’.

He directed particular scorn at ‘the utter lunacy’ of a new system introduced by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) designed to ensure that teachers engage in professional learning throughout their careers. It is called ‘Professional Update’. This replaces previous – and rather ineffective – earlier systems with labels such as ‘in-service training’ and ‘continuing professional development’.

‘Professional Update’ has been presented as giving teachers the opportunity to manage their own learning but, as the headteacher notes, they are required to take part in a bureaucratic exercise in which the parameters are very firmly laid down: it involves self-evaluation against professional standards (defined by the GTCS), participation in annual reviews at local level and the production of a portfolio of evidence about how their learning has impacted on practice. In other words, the ‘liberation’ which teachers are being offered involves compulsory jumping through a series of prescribed hoops.

By this point, readers may be wondering who this brave, or foolhardy, headteacher is. This is where the story becomes particularly interesting and casts doubt on some of the cherished myths of the ‘democratic tradition’ in Scottish education. The critic is not a headteacher within the state system but Rod Grant, head of Clifton Hall, an independent school near Edinburgh. So strongly does he feel about the issues he raises that he has decided to cancel his registration with the GTCS – a gesture that is not open to teachers in state schools, since in their case GTCS registration is a condition of employment by local authorities.

Can we expect a few heads within the state sector to follow Mr Grant’s lead and refuse to respond to all the calls for documentation? This is highly unlikely since a pattern of conformity is deeply ingrained within the public system. Headteachers in state schools are expected to show corporate allegiance in following the instructions of local authorities. They are told in no uncertain terms that they have a line-management relationship with local authority officials and, if they were to air dissent in public, they would be liable to find themselves subject to disciplinary proceedings. It is made clear that their first loyalty is not to their staff, the pupils, their parents or the community, but to the local authority, whose organisational ‘integrity’ must be maintained at all costs.

In private, many headteachers express despair at the constraints and frustrations of their position but they are understandably reluctant to take the risk of speaking out. This perhaps explains why it has become quite difficult to attract good candidates for some headteacher posts. The job carries great responsibility and high visibility, but limited power. Is it any wonder that many experienced, successful teachers decide that further promotion is not worth the stress that would accompany a post as headteacher?

Following Mr Grant’s article, there were some interesting reactions. Kenneth Muir, the chief executive of the GTCS, emphasised that ‘the broad church of Scottish education’ which had been involved in the development of the ‘Professional Update’ process – a familiar appeal to the twin notions of ‘consultation’ and ‘consensus’ which feature regularly in official accounts of the development of Scottish educational policy. He hoped that Mr Grant would re-consider his decision to de-register.

However, online discussion revealed strong support for Mr Grant and a distinct lack of sympathy for the GTCS’s position, including some comments from teachers who clearly worked in the state sector. One referred to the GTCS as ‘a self-serving political vehicle’ and argued that it is ‘an organisation that requires shaking up as the same old faces move from quango to quango to buttress their previous work elsewhere’.

There is certainly a perception in some quarters that the GTCS is an organisation with territorial ambitions, seeking to colonise new areas of operation. It was granted increased powers in 2013 and is viewed favourably by government, partly because it costs the public purse nothing – its income is derived from the registration fees of teachers – and partly because its desire for professional ‘respectability’ means that it can be relied upon never to offer a serious challenge to official policy.

Few people would dispute the notion that teachers, like other professionals, need to keep on learning beyond their initial training and be open to new ideas and approaches. It is doubtful, however, if this can be assured by the imposition of a system that purports to be liberating but which is, in fact, highly directive. As Gordon Kirk, a former principal of Moray House College of Education, wrote some years ago: ‘Perhaps the hallmark of the professional teacher is that he or she holds open the possibility of enhanced performance, not as a response to political diktat, not as a form of compliance, not in fulfilment of contractual requirement, but as an expression of an inner professional commitment to improved practice’.

It would appear that this eminently sensible perspective has been rejected in favour of Kafkaesque surveillance.

Walter Humes is a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling