Why this daily impress . . . that makes the night joint labourer with the day? – Hamlet
I have become increasingly concerned at the steadily growing gap between the education system and (what used to be) its core business of teaching. I see teachers working very hard, and SLT putting in a great deal of energy and time to ensure that that work happens. I see colleagues stretching, and often over-reaching themselves, with painful consequences for their families, relationships and health. I see managers pressure teachers, sometimes with explicit threats – ‘jobs are on the line here’; ‘if you don’t like the tasks I’m giving you, you have decisions to make’. And the reasons for this? Like the frightened soldiers in the opening of Hamlet, it’s not easy to know why teaching is so much harder than it used to be.
A certain breed of manager will immediately claim that it is because of the drive for improvement, and that a complacent system needed shaking up. I don’t believe this. For one thing, the drive for improvement has been going on for decades now. More importantly, the notion of what constitutes improvement keeps changing. We aren’t working harder because we haven’t improved; we are working harder (and longer) because our managers are chasing the next set of criteria from Ofsted, or the next set of performance measures from the DfE, or a better set of figures on RAISE online. Pupil Premium funds are ladled out (while other funding streams shrivel) and schools are then required to account for their impact. Now schools are measured on the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Regardless of how much progress disadvantaged students made, Has Your Achievement Gap Narrowed? Woe betide the SLT where advantaged students made more progress.
Remember when schools were judged on 5A* – C? Vocational and B-Tech courses proliferated. Then it was 5A* – C including English and Maths. Early entry and “intervention” (one-to-one and small group cramming) prospered. E-Bacc came along: more able students were steered into the options the school needed to get the figures up; curricula and staffing were restructured. Then there were the specification changes. Not only did these multiply – three new GCSE iterations in six years for English, for example, with multiple changes at A-Level simultaneously thrown into the mix – but grade boundaries were moved as well. In 2012 the English grade boundary moved by 150% more than any previous shift. And the changes roll on. New GCSEs. New A-Levels. Progress 8. Abolish curriculum levels. We all know the next bright idea is just around the corner.
No doubt there are schools that are running like well-oiled machines, where the superb quality of education is untouched by such turmoil. I haven’t come across them myself, but the law of averages says they are probably there. I do see colleagues moving with the serenity of ducks on a pond, whilst they paddle frantically beneath the surface, trying to keep up.
And all of this is largely unnecessary. I agree that the system needed reform. But both the piecemeal nature of reform, and its links to punitive consequences for managers, have heightened stress, lowered morale, and de-professionalised teachers, who now have almost no say in what is taught or how. I approved of many (but not all) of Michael Gove’s initiatives. But I dislike intensely the way these and other changes have been foisted on teachers, the atmosphere of threat and the expectation that teachers are an infinite pool of labour that can be used up, spat out, and replaced. Worst of all, perhaps, the edu-change industry has deflected us from our core business, and the alleged purpose of the ‘reforms’: giving students a good education.
So, 2015. Election year. Teachers have a choice between incomprehensible pronouncements sound-sampled from the early 2000s, or vague, soothing noises about how much the profession is valued – neither of which is accompanied by a real plan, a real agenda, or indeed any clear conception of what constitutes a good education. In which case, we can look forward to a lot more reform without any real value. But it will keep us busy.
A more ambitious plan
That was too downbeat a note on which to finish. I blame January. In the interests of a more positive contribution to debate, here is a five-point plan to restore order to the profession, starting with nailing down the essentials of what constitutes a good education:
- Work out what we agree on. There is a lot of common ground here. Decide on whether the remaining issues are important enough to argue over. If they are, let’s have the arguments, but let’s not be too proud to accept that we might be wrong.
- Hammer out the weasel words, like ‘literacy’, ‘informed’, or ‘fluent’. At the moment, they mean different things to different people. I want to know that my doctors are speaking the same language. Parents and students should be able to expect the same of educators.
- Ensure that the worldwide research database is available to teachers, that teachers are trained to evaluate research and that research routinely informs and guides practice with appropriate professional debate, skepticism and prudence. (I suspect this may be a terrifying thought for teacher training institutions who would have to encourage their students to challenge what they were being taught.)
- Separate the profession from political interference by the strength of our informed consensus. Develop our own professional leadership and persuade the government to recognise it – not the other way around. I don’t anticipate that happening without a lot of debate – but it is certainly possible, if we all treat each other in a spirit of charity.
- Maintain individual accountability, but link that accountability to collegial participation, contributing to teams, taking part in professional debates, engaging in and responding to research, and collaborative practice in schools.
Does that look too different from the current state of play to believe it might be possible?
My own view is that in a few years’ time, the government will have no choice. They will be delighted to delegate responsibility to the professionals, if only so that they can stop being blamed for the mess they’ve created.
That is reform I would welcome.