Respecting teachers’ professionalism

Winning friends and influencing people are important, especially when new ministers are appointed and new policies are introduced.

Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers was published in 1905 by officials very aware of the strained relationship with the teaching profession as a result of payment by results, which had recently ended. This was their attempt to re-establish a good working relationship with the nation’s teachers, long inured to government prescription.

Take its title. It’s a publication presenting “suggestions” for teachers to “consider”, not slavishly adopt. It doesn’t spell out detailed criteria to be adhered to; it doesn’t contain politically inspired hobby-horses that ministers or officials want to impose.

Its first sentence sets the tone: “In issuing this volume the Board of Education desire at the outset strongly to emphasise its tentative character, and to invite well-considered criticism designed to make it more useful”.

It’s not a definitive document; it’s not set in stone. It even encourages readers to engage in constructive criticism of its contents. Compare that with government white and green papers more than a century later.

It also respects the professional autonomy of teachers to decide on teaching methods. “The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see… is that 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.” No hint here of synthetic phonics, methods for the teaching of long multiplication or the like.

Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable

It recognises that comprehensive central prescription is neither possible nor desirable: “Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable”. Note the reference to “mere routine”, which puts school management firmly in its place as a facilitator, not determiner, of classroom practice.

Its next sentence is particularly significant: “But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use.” It is offering teachers considerable “degrees of freedom” but expects that freedom to be exercised with care, diligence and, though it doesn’t use these exact words, moral purpose.

It goes on: “Teachers who use this book should use it as an aid to reviewing their practice and as a challenge to independent thought on such matters.”

Note the reference to self-review and to independence of thought – both essential professional attributes then and now.

It welcomes dialogue with the teaching profession: “Substantial agreement, or dissent on definite and reasoned grounds, fortified by experience will be results equally welcome to the Board.”

There’s the reference to evidence-based practice made more than a century ago with the implication that official advice could change in the light of teachers’ experience.

Perhaps the most significant sentence is the firm assertion that “no teacher can teach successfully on principles in which he does not believe, nor must he lightly use his class as a field for experiment”. Ministers and headteachers take note!

It’s unclear what effect this affirmation of official support for teacher professionalism actually had; the research has not been done. Some teachers and others may have seen it as simply rhetoric, but what splendid rhetoric at that.


Colin Richards is emeritus professor of education at the University of Cumbria

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.