Thinking Aloud: There’s Nothing Like Common Sense

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.”

Tim Burton

Bip, Bop, Bip, Bop…

Time for another analogy. People complain – rightly – about moving goalposts, and how it’s harder to achieve standards when the expectations change seemingly month on month. There’s a two-pronged issue here. The DfE have one agenda, OFSTED another. With this in mind, it’s like the whole education system at the moment is one giant game of Pong; the paddles being the government and OFSTED, and the education system being the ball.

All that’s happening at the moment – be it a College of Teaching, Mr Wilshaw’s constant ‘stick deployment’, the Workload review, the recruitment crisis – they’re all symptoms of a lack of trust in teachers.

What amazes me is that qualified teachers must have been through some sort of education to university level. In other words – they’re not thick. So why is the governance of education so patronising?

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking. Does it really have to be so difficult? So I started to formulate a five point plan…

1. Teaching should be a profession, and stay as a profession

To quote Wikipedia, a profession is a vocation that requires specialised educational training. So this includes lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, engineers, etc. As soon as the government advocated the wave of unqualified teachers that are now presently in our midst, the concept of teaching as a profession was finally lost.

I say finally, because it has been a process that has been happening for years. I know one shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia, but it makes some good points about the elements of professionalism:

  • Regulation. Well, this is the one thing that seems to be determining the professional status of teaching. We have the DfE, OFSTED, OFQUAL, HMI… In fact teaching seems to be one of the most regulated bodies around.
  • Autonomy. Ah. Here’s the first problem. Teachers have very little autonomy. If anyone can tell me a subject that has the slightest hint of true autonomy and I’ll happily pay you £2000.
  • Status and prestige. Hahahahaha… sorry. The political football that is education, and the media spotlight that seems to blame teachers for everything, means that the status and prestige of teaching have never been lower. In other countries, they have Teachers’ Days (Teachers’ Days! Perish the thought!) that celebrate the contribution that educators make to society. I feel in the UK there is an anti-intellectual movement at the moment, where celebrity is promoted over real contributions to society, and the bashing of teachers is central to that.
  • Power. Our power as teachers stems from the trust of those who we serve. As I said previously, there is very little trust from who we serve, so therefore we have no power.

All of the other points in this manifesto stem from these principles.

2. Lead us from the front

In conversation with a very experienced colleague yesterday, he likened the decision makers in education to the Russian military generals in WW2. Their methods were thus:

  • Tell the soldiers what to do.
  • Watch the soldiers do it from afar.
  • If they got it wrong or were unlucky, they died.
  • If they refused or ran away, they were shot.

He said something had changed in recent years, and this template could be applied to leaders today. I don’t necessarily agree, because I think this scenario is not a fault of leaders but of the constraints they are in. I think that, again, this is a symptom of the lack of trust in teachers. Compare this with Henry V sort of ‘band of brothers’, ‘we happy few’, ‘once more unto the breach’ leadership, where the leader stands with their teachers and shares the burden. Whilst there has to be accountability in any profession, at the same time those who make the decisions have to take responsibility for them, in a collective sense, so teachers need to be worked with, rather than against.

This is the same with OFSTED and HMI. I wonder if at times the inspectorate have a sense of the influence their judgements have over the future of the careers of so many people. I don’t think they do. This is increasingly worrying considering the subjective nature of an inspection, despite obvious attempts from the top of these bodies to rectify the situation.

When I mean lead from the front I don’t mean for leaders and regulators to be soft. I mean that by through their decisions they value the contribution that teachers make, rather than question and judge, and ‘remove’ on a constant basis. Give teachers autonomy, and watch them thrive.

3. Realise that educators are not childminders or surrogate parents

It’s a brutal truth that many families have both parents working. Childcare is therefore an issue. However the increasing cost of childcare has resulted in an expectation for teachers to take up the slack, somehow. The classic example of this is the ‘snow day’. When a headteacher deems it unsafe for school to open, it is for safety and well-being of everyone on the site. Yet this fact is ignored, and they’re lambasted for closing a school because parents subsequently have to go out of their way organise childcare. Well forgive me, but if you have a child, they are your responsibility first: schooling should come secondary to parenting. Also what would happen if a child suffered an injury when a school stayed open? Exactly.

Likewise I lose count of the amount of ‘issues’ that teachers are expected to deal with in schools – citizenship, nutrition, extremism, racism, entrepreneurship, grit, resilience… I’m 100% behind the idea that schooling should be about developing character as well as academic skills, but it is not a solution for all of society’s ills, especially when the tools and resources to deal with such problems are taken away from us (like closing the Connexions service: what a travesty). There has to be some part on the parent and other organisations to support teachers in this regard. I’m not saying teachers should not play a role in improving society – I’m saying they should not be the only ones responsible.

4. Get the incentives to teach right

There’s a belief that to get people into teaching, you’ve got to lure them with financial incentives. Presently you can get paid more to train as a teacher than to be a first year teacher. Insane. All this does is create a scenario where people train because of the money, and then are put off by the workload, negative status and sheer grind of the job.

As Dan Pink, Dan Airely and many other behavioural economists and researchers have found, there is a point where financial incentives do not work. I’d go as far as to say that most successful teachers don’t go into it for the money. In fact, they’d be mad to, because there’s a wealth of other jobs that are better paid, less regulated and less bureaucratic.

Most teachers join the profession because they want to make a difference to students’ lives. A noble ideal yes, but the truth, ultimately. There are other perks – the holidays for one, apparently, although tell me of a teacher who doesn’t do some sort of work through them. Likewise the ‘hours’, but as we’ve seen from the teacher workload survey you’ll be hard pressed to find a teacher that does under 50 hours of work a week, a large part of that at weekend. Oh, and there’s the pension,but that seems to be getting chipped away at every year as well!

So the incentives have to be different. So what about external incentives like free or subsidised healthcare, childcare, and so on? Internal incentives, like reduced teaching hours in school to allow time for proper CPD to take place; reduced paperwork (much of what we do is duplication of other stuff); and daft as it might sound, I’d bet my bottom dollar that a free school dinner, tea and coffee (and some nice biscuits) would make life just that little bit easier for staff. I’m just hypothesising, but I hope you can see where I’m coming from. I’m not saying teaching should be easy, as any fulfilling job has to be challenging. What I’m saying is that everything possible should be done to allow teachers to focus on the challenge of improving students lives, rather than dealing with the daily drudge.

5. Education policy should be determined by academics, rather than politicians

Michael Gove’s great failing was not his decision-making methods. Michael Gove failed because his ideology was (is?) outdated and attempted to place a template of ‘old school’ education on present society. The irony of this is that the ‘old school’ was very much the ‘secret garden’ that James Callaghan spoke of and Margaret Thatcher knocked down the walls of.

I liked some of his ideas. An attempt to create a national exam board for each subject was a principle of pure genius. The GCSE reforms were absolutely right and fair (I’m not sure about the idea of changing the grading system, but that’s another discussion).

The problem was that it was all a case of ‘I know better than you do’, and this was the problem. He didn’t. There was a lot of doublespeak in terms of ‘Finnish models’ but not actually employing any of their concepts. The Shanghai project clearly has merit but it seems to be done out of spite – “British education is failing so it must be the fault of our teachers – let’s go ask the opinions of a people whose culture is completely different from our own”.

Much of what politicians are swept up in when it comes to education is anecdote and hearsay, thought experiments and hubris. Policies should be based on sound academic research that take into account actually what happens on the ground in schools every day.

I’ve mentioned my fears of an anti-intellectual agenda from government and it appears to be coming into reality. There is a short fall of engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses, architects in the UK. Why aren’t they coming through? Our education system does not allow for it to happen. We value personal ‘wants’ over the national ‘need’, and curriculum choices reflect that. Another one of Gove’s master strokes was to knock the BTEC ‘worth 4 GCSEs’ phenomenon on the head. For me he didn’t go further enough but at least there was an acknowledgement that academic rigour was being lost in the system.

To address the anti-intellectual agenda, and to take education from being a political football to a centrepiece of modern Britain, we need to give policy over to the academics. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Education policy at the moment changes so frequently that we’ve got a generation of students who might have similar grades but know completely different things, at varying levels of difficulty. For example, and I’m only talking from personal experience, the GCSE was meant to be standardised. It is no longer the case. Policy needs to be longer term, so that teachers’ and leaders’ stress is reduced because they what will be coming up in 1, 2, 3 years time rather than the monthly whims of a policy wonk in Whitehall.
  2. It creates a scenario where education policy is based on evidence rather than ‘stuff’. I’ve seen all sorts of ‘revolutionary’ ideas. BrainGym, PLTs, Learning Styles, Emotional Intelligences all have come and gone because in most cases the science is either a) non-existent or b) needs more work. ResearchED are trying to make moves in this regard, but processes like this need backing from the decision makers. Something like a ‘National Education Research Board’, perhaps?

My ideal scenario would for policy to be decided by proper academic research, and then driven by – and I know some people will not be happy about this – a ‘bulldog’ like Michael Gove. I think sometimes when policy is brought in teachers are too often treated with a softly softly approach, but what happens is that the impact of the message is lost by treating us with kid gloves. If the policy is shown to be working, and it’s proven with proper evidence and not blind belief, then it needs to be implemented. We cannot let our beliefs cloud our capabilities to improve.

So, in essence…

Teachers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The competing agendas of government, policy makers, OFSTED, the media and industry are creating a debased and unstable education system in the UK. Part of this is the slow destruction of the professional status of teachers – the removal of autonomy, status and prestige in tandem with increased and tighter regulation. Leadership of teachers needs to be through positive example and use of the ‘carrot’ as much as the stick. Don’t treat struggling teachers like deserting soldiers. Treat teachers as educators, not childminders or factory staff, and they’ll feel worthwhile, and turn the corner.

Likewise, the incentives for teaching need to be beyond the pay, ensuring that teachers can concentrate on the job of improving students’ lives rather than ticking boxes and producing reports. Finally, policy should be grounded in proper, relevant scientific research, and implemented swiftly to maximise impact.

Will the College of Teaching solve this? I’m not so sure. I’m worried that it’ll become a glorified GTC. A College of Teaching could be my ‘National Education Research Board’ if allowed, but if it becomes a political football, well, it’s going to go the same way as the GTC did.

Presently, the efforts to improve standards in education can be boiled down to “if it isn’t working, use a bigger stick”. The time will come soon where those in charge won’t be able to wield the stick! Also, choose the right ‘carrots’. Throwing money at the problem usually attracts the wrong people. Teaching should be a lifelong vocation, not a job, and government needs to facilitate this.


About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
This entry was posted in Epic Post, Thinking Aloud. Bookmark the permalink.

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