In a collegial primary school the teachers work together to determine the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment of pupils. They work co-operatively, involving parents and governors, to provide the best education for their pupils and drawing heavily on their training, experience, professional commitment to do the best for every child, and their own personal interests and enthusiasms.
Government needs to do no more than provide testing materials for teachers to use so that at eleven there is a measure of each child's performance in reading, writing, and simple maths. Once government has stopped trying to tell teachers in primary schools what to do the schools can begin to learn how to work collegially.
It is more difficult for secondary schools to be collegial because of size and the curricula requirements of external examinations. But within departments it is possible to work co-operatively on pedagogy and on internal assessment, as many do now.
Collegial schools are far, far more effective at providing every child with a worthwhile education than are today’s government-controlled schools dominated by fiat, inspection and testing. Likewise they are far more effective than those schools of the mid-twentieth century where each teacher was autonomous and the schools lacked cohesion. Freed of government control collegial schools will permit the teachers’ professional commitment to flourish while being accountable to the local community for the effective education of their pupils.
In a collegial school the classroom doors are, metaphorically if not literally, open and staff share their knowledge and pedagogic skills in order to achieve the best education for every child in the school.
A collegial school is one:
• where decisions as to the most appropriate curriculum for the children are taken by the staff of the school as a whole;
• where colleagues recognise the strengths and weaknesses of each other and draw encouragement from the first and give support to the second;
• where assessment for learning has become part of the fabric of the school;
• where assessment of attainment is regularly made by the teachers themselves and communicated to parents;
• where the head is recognised as the educational leader of the school in both developing the pedagogy, curriculum and assessment of the school and in challenging and supporting the work of individual teachers;
• where parents are regularly in touch with the educational development of their children;
• where the governors, seen as lay representatives of the parents and of the local community, are included in the educational discussions of the school and can, from time to time, give the local authority an accountability report on the extent to which the school is achieving its stated aim;
• where the school’s aim is not just to raise the standard of literacy and numeracy, but to raise the standard of the total educational experience of every child;
• where the teachers enjoy the trust of parents and the respect of society at large; and
• where the school gates are open to parents and the local community, but closed to national government and its agencies.
Just over 100 years ago, in 1905, the Board of Education declared in its handbook – aptly called Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers:
each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable, even if it were attainable. But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.
This model, the autonomous teacher, dominated English schools for much of the twentieth century. It was like the curate’s egg – good and bad in places.
In the hands of the best teachers it provided an excellent education, giving full rein to their creativity, insights and enthusiasm.
But, because of its autonomous nature, it isolated the weaker teachers and deprived them of both the criticism and the support they needed in order to improve their practice. Worse, it tended to protect any incompetence on the spurious grounds that it would be unprofessional for other teachers to interfere. Each teacher could shut the classroom door and say to the world, ‘keep out’. Only the very occasional HMI inspection – or the forceful headteacher – could push open that door.
This was the era of classrooms as ‘secret gardens’ where neither parents nor anybody else knew what was happening. In some every flower bloomed but in many others the garden was choked with weeds.
The 1988 Education Reform Act was a justifiable assault on the idea of the autonomous teacher. The idea that the individual sense of responsibility of each teacher was sufficient to ensure that behind the closed classroom door pupils were getting the best possible education, was no longer tenable.
Unfortunately, in the years following 1988, government ministers and government-appointed agencies became more and more prescriptive in their determination to raise standards in schools. The external testing of pupils and the inspection of teachers and schools became perceived by many as instruments of persecution and so began to damage what governments were trying to improve.
The autonomous teachers who were ‘thinking for themselves’ were replaced by the knowledge-and-skills technicians working to the government’s manual and rule-book! Teachers lost the opportunity for spontaneity, creativity and educational insight that had characterised the work of the best in the profession, but, certainly, the work of the weaker teachers improved in a transformation in which ‘diamonds were dimmed and pebbles polished’.
This can be seen as the time of the ‘formal gardens’. Neat, tidy, weed free, everything according to plan, but lacking anything unexpected: boring to many children and to their teachers
Schools had been forced to move from one extreme to the other: neither giving all young people the best education in the widest sense. Teachers know that the collegial school will be vastly better because it liberates their creativity within a shared responsibility and with effective accountability.
Collegial primary schools could herald the arrival of creative gardens where everywhere flowers bloom as the ‘gardeners’ share their knowledge and skills to make this happen.
When government shackles are removed from primary schools it will be advisable for University Departments of Education to provide brief training courses in collegiality.
For example it requires primary head teachers to lead their schools democratically and not autocratically (as seems to have happened in some places in recent years - accompanied with invidious bullying).
Classroom teachers will need to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, enthusiasms and interests, and share them trustingly with their school colleagues.
Collegiality grows slowly - it does not happened by fiat but by a school staff learning to work together and trust each other. Other centres for training may of course arise. But it must not be neglected. We should remember how, when grammar schools and secondary moderns were merged as comprehensives, too many teachers floundered because they had had no training for the new demands!
This page was first posted on 17 February 2009, revised on 7 February 2014, and minor changes made on 11 November 2015