The cult of celebrity has not always been a feature of life within education. There are far more books available than was the case when I went to Teacher Training College. That bookshop would fit in my third bedroom today and what was there was often in pamphlet form, rather than bona fide books. So there are more teacher authors seeking to promote their ideas, often taking something that’s been around for a long time, repackaging it slightly, renaming it and then telling it as if it’s the new best thing.
The problem with self-promotion is that, within a busy profession, it can lead to an overload of novelty, or the incorporation of ideas that look good, but have limited shelf life, or more commonly, embedded without full consideration and preparation, so have limited impact.
The first 12 years of my classroom career could be summarised as an opportunity to talk with colleagues. As the internet was still a dream in someone’s mind, the spoken and written word were the only options. Teachers’ Centres were available, offering courses, lasting several weeks, almost always twilight sessions, where advisors, inspectors, selected lead teachers and heads, would share their thoughts on current practice. We relied on them as a profession to be the interface between up to date thinking and our own practice. In school, dissemination of these courses supported staff meetings and broadened our CPD, across the whole curriculum. It was a case of sharing the development process and the outcomes, so could be implemented as per the descriptor.
1986 saw the inception of the National Writing Project, with the Oracy project to follow, coupled with the National Curriculum in 1987. After the arrival of the NC, apart from a need to audit the school provision, which showed a 95% correspondence between current and desired, requiring a few modest tweaks, the rich curriculum persisted, I would say, with occasional revisions, until 1997.
It is interesting to note that revisions were often informed by significant face to face meetings, especially noteworthy under Sir Ron Dearing, who was determined to provide a streamlined but still worthwhile challenge, incorporating teacher ideas.
Politicians, with a few exceptions, were often noteworthy by their low profiles. They stuck to their core roles, of teacher supply and development and providing school places. Thatcher stole the milk, Sir Keith Joseph always looked agonised, Ken Baker wrote poetry, but brought in the National Curriculum, and Ken Clarke just couldn’t understand education before the age of 12, especially the infants. Since 2010, the SoS for Education role has been significantly high profile.
The first Chief Inspector to become a household name was Chris Woodhead, appointed in 1994. He is the first speaker I have ever listened to agree with both sides of an argument within the space of a couple of minutes. His regular outpourings became the stuff of newspaper columns, radio and television. He was a real “marmite” figure, who eventually went off to establish a chain of Private Schools.
National Curriculum testing was implemented from 1991, so there had been a four year embedding period before the first tests appeared, and all within the remit of a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum. General judgements supported progress, with every teacher becoming aware of levelness to support progress, based on moderation of outcomes.
If you got the Times Educational Supplement, the regular Ted Wragg column became the conversation piece on a Monday morning. His ironic take on all things political were an antidote to the beginning of the ratchetting up of demands. They also captured the ongoing discussions within the profession.
And then came 1997; education, education, education. What a simple message, or mantra, that resonated and persuaded voters that this was an important area for the potential new Government, uttered with conviction by the erudite leader. Teachers were persuaded that they would be party to discussion and help to determine the direction of education discussion…
Within a few months, the SoS, David Blunkett, was on the radio and TV with his regular message, Literacy and Numeracy Hours for everyone, coupled with the arrival of the National Strategy boxes of materials to be disseminated, supposedly to support staff development. Blunkett said relatively little, but kept to the simplified script.
Three years later, John Stannard, the author of the Literacy Strategy, spoke to Hampshire HTs. I was emboldened to point out that the process of implementation and interpretation on the strategy had taken my school backwards and had been a huge distraction from our higher quality demand. He seemed surprised…
It was a case of some affected colleagues having to unlearn the mantra and learn to think again for themselves and to have confidence in their decisions, not stick to the central script.
Somewhere around 1999, sub levels appeared, then relatively quickly morphed into Assessing Pupil Progress (APP), which restructured teacher thinking, yet again, moving from broad thinking to seeking to devise tasks to evidence a move from one sub level to another. This in turn, in some settings, led to more setting of children.
The fixation with structures has been a feature of the past 20 years, often putting in place self-limiting approaches. There has been a focus on capturing a simple message that can be useful in publicity, but which, over time is found wanting and is quietly shelved. In the process, it diverts much teacher time from their front line challenges. The requirement for schools to constantly “improve” has also been the catalyst for incorporation of schemes that offer a quick fix.
In reality, there are no quick fixes in education, despite the political imperative, over a short period between elections, to be seen to demonstrate improvement. Structures (style) has more often triumphed over substance. Effort is expended looking over shoulders to see where the next potentially damning judgement will arrive.
Schools need stability, if they are to take stock, audit their provision and decide on courses of action that are possible within the potential limitations of their building and their staff expertise.
They need to know that there is stock of new entrants into the profession sufficient to cover their anticipated needs. They need external advice and challenge, local as well as national, that helps them to move forward with clarity. They need time, to think, to evaluate the outcomes of their efforts and refine whet they are doing.
The sadness of the past twenty years is that the centralisation of organisation and thinking is in danger of diminishing the thinking of those people required to be the lead thinkers in their classrooms, the teachers. They should be able to work with confidence, reacting to the evident needs of the children in front of them, because that, in reality, is where quality education lies.
Looking back over time, it was the availability of local opportunity to talk in depth with others whose expertise was valued that made a difference on a day to day basis. The discussion offered moderation or alternative thinking that could be evaluated for their benefits to add to what was already in place.
Adding something meant something had to be removed. Local inspectors supported inset, often across schools, so ideas became more widespread and made best use of available expertise.
Thinking as a team enabled the team to progress, whereas the singularity of some training, interpreted back to colleagues, usually lost some of the nuance needed to fully understand. Some bloggers are very good at developing both the structures and exploring the outcomes. Some celebrity tweeters pick a topic, make fun, then pile into anyone who deigns to question. Some even write self-supporting and self-referencing blogs, which was a technique used by the Black Papers “celebrities” of the 1960-70s, but in a series of pamphlets.
Celebrity has a price. It can be short lived. If one idea is questioned, others start to be looked at closely. Social media, such as Twitter, creates a new form of celebrity; often self-determined, but which, by also embedding distance and the limitations of 140 characters, can also engender negativity very quickly. People look very closely at celebrities; quickly built up, but equally rapidly pulled down.
Education benefits from ideas shared and questioned professionally. It is easier face to face, harder through blogs, but much less nuanced on social media. Perhaps the profession just needs occasionally to stop point scoring and talk. We’d expect that of the children.