Monday, 2 March 2015

Something sad is happening to schools

Having left the schools sector three years ago I have had little direct contact with it until just recently. Over the last few weeks though I have met a number of people who are still, or were until just recently, teachers. Their stories are all different but the overall impression I have got from them has been sadness, and to some extent regret at having given over their lives to teaching.

This is not a post about how hard-working and stressed teachers are. I think for decades we overplayed that hand, without understanding the stresses and difficulties other professionals face and with insufficient appreciation of the 11 weeks of annual holiday. However it is interesting that British teachers have always had that sense of themselves. It is, I think, no coincidence that of all the countries I know anything about Britain is the one in which teachers are given the least automatic respect by the rest of society. So perhaps it has been in response to this that British teachers have long defined themselves instead by their masochistic insistence on their own levels of hard work and stress.

I freely admit that banging on like this has probably not, over the decades, won teachers a great deal of sympathy and I do not want to re-enter the old and pointless debate about just how comparatively hard teachers work compared to other professionals. The fact is though that teachers are (and throughout human history always have been) crucial to the future of society, so it matters how they feel about their jobs, because how they feel about them partly determines how well they do them, and how well teachers do their jobs affects an entire generation.

The problem is, if the current and recently ex-teachers I have met recently are anything to go on, then how teachers feel about their jobs at the moment is not encouraging. Of course there are people in all sorts of jobs who are pissed off, bored, over-stressed or just knackered, and negativity about your work is far from confined to teachers. What I am talking about though is something different. The staff I have talked to weren't so much whingeing about how hard they were (or had been) working or complaining about the pace and scale of change, or even bemoaning the lack of recognition for their hard work. What they seemed to be saying, and what marked these conversations as different to me, was that it all seemed such a shame. They weren't so much angry or frustrated or bored or exhausted. The only word for how they seemed to me to feel was the one I used at the start of this post: sad. They were variously sad that the job just didn't have the sense of purpose it used to, sad that skill and effort seemed no longer to be recognised and sad that children no longer seemed to be at the heart of what they did.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, once memorably told a group of headteachers that "If anyone says to you that 'staff morale is at an all-time low' you know you are doing something right," and Michael Gove expressed his antagonism towards the teaching profession (the core of what he called 'the Blob') even more directly: "As long as there are people in education making excuses for failure, cursing future generations with a culture of low expectations, denying children access to the best that has been thought and written, because Nemo and the Mister Men are more relevant, the battle needs to be joined."

It is not just denigration from the powers that be that has saddened teachers though. The near-universal academisation of schools has stripped out many of the extended learning communities that teachers relied on to validate their practice and their sense of themselves as valued and valuable contributors to the fund of human understanding. Curricula that teachers have committed to and helped to shape over decades were swept away by Michael Gove in favour of anti-intellectual 'traditional' structures in which rote-learning again has a place and teachers reduced to transmitters of static knowledge.

The best and most successful private sector companies have learned that the path to innovation and improvement lies with empowering and listening to ordinary employees, thus securing their buy-in to the ethos of the organisation, and also learning from their on-the-ground expertise. Programmes like Undercover Boss may be artificial constructs but the thinking behind them is what lies at the heart of any properly forward-looking company.

Yet in schools there seems to have been a relentless effort of recent years to push in the other direction. Heads have been encouraged to become more draconian with their staff, to stamp out 'merely satisfactory' performance (and performers). Teachers' innovative and thoughtful ways of supporting students into and through their GCSEs have been denounced as virtually cheating and the target culture, which has been so widely derided elsewhere, has become the be-all and end-all of everything in teachers' professional lives. Teacher communities of various sorts (Local Authority based, exam syllabus based, curriculum development based) have been demolished as the unprecedented centralisation of both curriculum development and school organisation has taken hold.

And where in all this is the scope for individuality, for creative thinking and for active commitment to the school, the local community and the children with all their varied needs? No doubt there is still excellent teaching going on and no doubt there are staff who live full and rewarding professional lives. The thing is though, if I were still a teacher in the schools sector I might well be tempted to do as many of those I have recently met have started doing- put my head down, keep quiet and hope nobody noticed me too much. That way I might be able to make it to retirement and the still reasonably generous teachers' pension without my job taking an excessive toll on me.

The thing is, is that what we want the nation's teachers to be doing? Maybe it isn't too late to reverse what I suspect may be a catastrophic collapse in ordinary teachers' sense of playing a crucial role in the massive project of finding the best way to educate the nation's children. What would be needed though would be a Secretary of State for Education whose starting point was not that Britain's school system is broken and needs radical reform or that the means to do so was principally about disempowering the entire education establishment and taking the reins entirely into his or her own hands.

What we would need instead is someone who is prepared to listen to teachers again, to give them a voice and the fora in which to develop and express it. We need someone who can convince teachers once again that what they are doing is important and worthwhile and valued- that they can and should want to learn how to do it even better, but that the best people to help them do that will inevitably be colleagues in their and other schools. We need someone who sees exams and assessment as something that teachers should be central in shaping, rather than, as now, something to catch both students and teachers out and discover their inadequacies.

What we need is someone whose commitment is to the development of education in this country rather than the development of their own career through taking on the education establishment.

1 comment:

  1. Good Post.

    Like so many professions, what it means to be a teacher is changing faster than most schools and teachers can adapt.

    If you are not already familiar with it, we , here in Atlanta (US), have a stunning example of how centralized attempts to improve the educational system can go wrong.
    Under President Bush an attempt was made to tie funding and teacher remuneration to student test results. It was implemented in such a way as to create an atmosphere of ‘Improve your test scores or else…..’ . Faced with seeing looming funding cuts, the poorest schools with the weakest teachers and the toughest students resorted to the only solution could think of. They were not in a position to change the students, so they changed the test scores with terrible results to themselves, the children who they teaching and the morale of the entire school system.
    Some of the teachers in question were recently given prison sentences of 7 years having been found guilty of charges brought against them under a federal racketeering laws intended to be used against organized crime.