Teachers want to keep getting better and to better themselves. If we want to keep people in teaching, then we have to facilitate them as thinkers and value the fact that they are employed to do that, on the front line.
It is all very well for “policy makers”, Government ministers and others to make pronouncements about the direction of education, but, unless teachers are brought into the discussion, they will be just like the troops in World War 1, sent over the top, unthinkingly, into a minefield. There are sufficient pits to fall into in day to day teaching, without the need to negotiate the minefield that is current policy development. The lack of coherence is often breath-taking.
To Whom It May Concern; reflections from my 40+ year career, to another with a 40+ year career.
You and I are similar in career terms, in that I, too have completed over 40 years in education. That it was not always an easy ride is almost synonymous with teaching, in that the reality is that the job is never quite done; there is always a little more that can be added, especially with vulnerable learners. Despite teachers’ best efforts, some children struggle to learn, which can be disheartening. That it takes over your life, putting pressure on personal lives has also been a constant.
I can remember sitting up late into the night making work cards for the children, hand-written, as there was little in the way of reproduction available then; the Banda machine was only allowed for a class set of copies, which was rare. However the act of making the material actually got us closer to the learners, as everything was tailored to the needs of those specific children. If it wasn’t, then time would be spent in the classroom addressing the issues that arose. It was not uncommon to do a 60 hour week.
Today’s teachers are also working a 60 plus hour week, but, unlike my focus on the specific learning needs of the children, they may be being diverted by “pseudo-data”, being created to satisfy the school need to show that children are making progress. This approach derives from the APP style tick sheets, which I hated, but which appear to be an accurate description; in essence they are also a diversion from the bigger picture of learning.
Whereas, when we started teaching, and for considerable time thereafter, there was much pleasure in creating schemes of work, seeing learning from beginning to end, tailored to learner need and often taking advantage of local experiences and resources, today much more is prescribed to the last detail, creating teachers as knowledge delivery machines, rather than allowing them to be fully engaged in learning.
Prescription, as we have seen in the past few years is unprecedented. Coupled with pressures, real or imaginary, from Government and Ofsted, often amplified through the media, in general or specifics, has made the role of a teacher more challenging, as local interpretations further amplify the need for evidence.
When we both started, becoming a teacher was seen as a very positive step, a career move with significant prospects. It was why I stopped being a Lab assistant with ICI and trained. A teacher had status. My family were extremely proud; I was the first to do that level of work.
With promotion came greater status and status mattered. I remember the five scale, 1-5, range for teacher status, which became A-E and is not subsumed into another series of linked scales, with responsibility posts etc. Becoming a headteacher was the pinnacle of my career, a real privilege.
Teachers today are more likely to hide the fact that they are teachers, in a social setting, as others regurgitate what they have read in the press about the “state of education” and you find yourself in an argument. There is a strange dilemma in education too, in that this argument can be framed within the idea that their local school is wonderful; it’s all the others…
Denigrating teachers, and teacher trainers, into an amorphous mass, as “The Blob”, fed the media frenzy. Elevating some practitioners above all the rest, through references in speeches and invitations to discussions, diminished the profession as a whole, apart from a select few, while the troops on the ground carry on with the day job. While it makes for headlines, and occasionally quite violent spats on social media, the supposed dichotomies in education are, in reality just the different parts of the job, available to every teacher to select the best for the role.
While you and I will have had time to think, to plan and be proactive in our approach, and while I do recognise that there were some examples of extreme practice developed and highlighted/pilloried in our early careers, today’s teachers have to be far more reactive, but often to the wrong areas. They are chasing their tails in a way that previous generation will not have done. It’s not surprising if they sometimes fail to hit the moving target that has been the pattern from Government and Ofsted for some time.
Raising standards has been the mantra for my whole career. Who would ever advocate lowering standards? That is counter-intuitive. Unpicking what constitutes quality has been an aspect of my whole experience.
The current incarnation of the curriculum, especially in Primary, is in the process of destroying the stability of the Primary ethos, removing certain subjects to the margins before they eventually disappear, in the ever more frustrating search for maths and English “excellence”. I have to say that, as the other subjects offer the opportunity to use and apply things learned in English and the wider curriculum contributes the knowledge aspects to underpin high quality reading and writing, this is disaster waiting to happen, as, although technical English skills may rise, the actual quality of writing is likely to fall, as children have less to import into their writing.
However, as someone who does visit a large number of schools, I am also aware that, despite some of the pressures, there are schools doing really well.
They take a good look at themselves and often decide to run themselves counter to the prevailing narrative. They achieve despite the pressures, because they hold onto real education, for real children, whose personal needs are carefully identified and addressed, so that they can participate fully in the richness on offer. These schools are collegiate; groups of people prepared to challenge and develop themselves, as professionals. They create the space to think clearly, to develop broad planning approaches that support the whole, while retaining a place to cater for individual needs as they arise. They are proactive and also “forensically” reactive; they have direction and purpose which acts as their guide, but also know how to get themselves back on course after a short detour caused by events. They build capacity in all staff and deploy them to advantage all the children.
I have seen this in schools from Essex to Cornwall, including many in London and also from the south coast north as far as Cheshire. These schools exist; a mixture of process and high outcomes supporting excellent evaluation.
Recently, I met a teacher mentor in a Private school, who described their curriculum, which could have been mine from 20 years ago. This is being held in high esteem. Where have we been for the past twenty years, apart from sleepwalking into someone else’s better future?
For all the rhetoric, especially the anti-Blob, locally schools were beginning to achieve well, from 1992 onwards, after the National Curriculum had been embedded. The National Strategies were a huge distraction and sought to incorporate ever tighter controls. This is being amplified within the current NC and the surrounding rhetoric, which is a shame, as, in reality, what is being sought is a few percentage points of improvement, not a massive hike. Where schools do need specific help, this can be analysed and addressed, separately and collegially, to advantage a whole community. Support does not start from use of a sledgehammer.
Can we create a space and time to think, before the whole becomes unstoppable? With grandchildren who could see in the next century, I want them to be lifelong learners with the capacity to solve their day to day problems, but also to have a clear grasp of wider issues, so that they don’t just become “camp followers”.
Teachers should be in the vanguard of the discussion, not, in themselves, "camp followers". If they are treated as such, is it a surprise that they choose other options? They are bright people, with choice. They will go where they can use their brains to advantage.