A job for life, not just for Christmas

A job was piece-work — that was the job, to make this or that article and then, the job was done — or it was part of a production line; the more repetitive and alienating business of repeating just one part of the job. A profession was something else. It was a self-employed person, advertising her skills. Both could be vocations — something which spoke to a person’s whole life. Work you could be proud of; something to profess.

Generally, we have all been professionalised, as, from the 1980s, people were required to market themselves and to show their claims to have skills. Contracts became fixed-term, or casualised again, like ‘festive work’. But teaching remained a job. It could not help but be the business of dealing with each child in front of you. The child lasted seven or five years in a school. If two-thirds of her teachers chopped and changed each three years, that became a different thing.

If it had not been about relationships and human beings, you would have to call teaching piece-work. The business analogy is really unacceptable (we might wish that governments had not used it), but the child was the product, and left school as a finished job of work. There were finishing schools, too — for finishing touches. When teaching was ‘professionalised’, from the 1990s, the New Labour government bumped up teachers’ pay and created an apparatus of ‘professional’ hoops to jump through; but they could not change the facts of the job.

Professions always had made hoops to jump through themselves. They had a guild mentality. They had to market themselves as individuals, on their individual strengths, and they needed to restrict access to the work available. These might or might not be charters (or some such formal character) but the aim was gate-keeping. For those established already it was part of their marketing that the reputation of their profession, and its standards, be maintained. And in the 2020s, all sorts of new niches of work are setting up professional associations which, one day, seek charters.

Teaching has not stood apart. After the qualification to be allowed to teach, all sorts of other qualifications now count in teaching. Your claim to be skilled in managing now relies on professional qualifications for middle management, senior management and leadership roles — in which teaching has little place. Just as teaching followed trends of the wider workplace in the 1980s, it followed the wider workplace a generation later. NPQH. National Professional Qualification for Headship.

Yet teaching remains, in fact, a job. The job is the work done with the child in front of the teacher. It is finished and starts again with each growing child. They are not parts of a production process, whatever analogies of productivity and quality assurance have been ratcheted into education by politicians and those whom they appoint. Therefore there is a disjuncture: between what teaching actually is, and how teachers now actually think. Teachers think like professionals who must market themselves, but they have children to teach.

This point is obvious when it comes to crunch questions. Should schools have ‘off-rolled’ students — a question now coming to haunt universities, as ‘professionalisation’ moves like rising damp in to tertiary education? If a child wants to do subjects X, Y, and Z, because they guarantee A/9, A/9 and A/9, does it matter that this child will get little from those subjects? If a child is crammed and drilled to get A or 9, does it matter that the methods used will not build in resilience and possibility for later stages in her learning? The teacher’s skills and the school’s grades will be clearly advertised; so it does not matter much.

When teaching was ‘professionalised’, teachers were actually proletarianised. Everything they did and how they did it was regulated and prescribed with increasingly minute exactness. The performance management, appraisal and productivity analogies from Fordism were driven through just as post-Fordism developed in the economy elsewhere. Schools were put under immense pressure to be factories just when they could have been educating people to be the workers we need now, instead. And of course, the Dearing Report was never followed through; the technical education never was made all of a piece with the ‘academic’. All lessons were made technical; it was all called academic; the truly technical and the truly academic were neglected.

Few teachers stood against this. They were getting paid more, but they also felt they had more status. As they spent their time pursuing their National Qualifications for Careership, their focus moved from the job to the process.

What is the take-away? What is the constructive message on which to end? We need to understand that money, or the forces of capital more generally (to be accurate), have been the drivers here. The child and society have not been the drivers. The school really is the microcosm of society. Generally that cliché is mentioned to depict the way that all sorts of people end up in one school, despite the fact that many schools select on class; more relevantly that cliché shows that what people in schools try to do is already being driven by the forces driving the macrocosm they embody. If no one pays the cost of resistance, forces go unstopped. Teachers did not resist. Teacher training no longer includes much philosophy.

The take-away is that real education will need now to take place, as it did in the nineteenth century, by people doing it for themselves. Because the teachers did not resist, a generation later now all must resist, the unthinking nature of our process.

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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