Too much stirring is spoiling the pudding

The world of education seems to me to be currently in a state of frenzy, particularly in England, but probably fuelled in good part by US ideology. Teachers, like myself, who actually read the bulletins, follow the research, go on facebook, watch the news etc., (maybe there are some that do none of these) are assailed from all directions, with the underlying message that something must be done. For example – in random order:

  • RI/Good/Outstanding
  • Ofsted’s new directives
  • Just Ofsted!
  • Coasting schools
  • Failing teachers
  • Failing heads
  • Teachers want to leave
  • Workload
  • The New Curriculum is good/bad/indifferent
  • Mastery
  • Levels were a bad idea
  • Assessment for Learning is a wonderful thing
  • Progressivism was a terrible idea
  • Trojan horses
  • Text books are great/not great
  • Phonics is good (as is grammar!)
  • Academies will save us/damn us all
  • Parents have the right to choose
  • State schools should be more like private schools
  • Close the gap
  • Practice should be based on research – take your pick which piece
  • Marking is essential feedback/not essential/done badly
  • Independent learning
  • Individualised trajectories
  • Whole class teaching
  • Age related expectations
  • Progressive targets
  • Accountability measures
  • Observations are important/detrimental
  • New technologies are going to save us/damn us all
  • SMCS
  • British Values

I could go on, and readers of this blog could probably add hundreds more items to the list. When I read articles, blogs and research online, everyone has an opinion. Sometimes there is ‘evidence’, although not the kind of evidence that would be accepted within the ‘hard’ sciences. If we teachers were to try to take on board everything that they tell us, so that we are not ‘failing teachers’, we’d become useless. And what are all these methods, tools, strategies, for, exactly? An improvement in attainment of 3 months? Really? Is that anything? I meet successful former pupils – I can not begin to think how I can relate their success to something as nebulous as a 3 month difference in attainment in primary school, even if I could believe that such things can be measured. (In fact, give us that measuring tool – it would help us all a lot!). And then, what is the measure of their success? Are they making a useful contribution to the economy? Is that what it’s about? I really don’t think it is or that it should be. I would like it to stop, now. Nothing can operate well within a climate of such unremitting, frequent and conflicting input and I don’t believe it’s as complicated as all that. There have been successful educators in the past – we have to admit that teachers must have managed it before we had so many directives and all this ‘evidence based practice’. Some of my own teachers were brilliant, but that’s not even the issue. The responsibility for learning, lies with the learner, not the teacher! If we continue to believe we can ‘fix’ things by directing our remedies at the teachers, we’ll fail. The main issue with the teachers is not what they do but what they (don’t) know, and a focus on teaching distracts us from that issue. English teachers are themselves the product of the system and the result of a culture that has removed the responsibility of learning from the learner. I’ve seen this myself, where, if a teacher lacks subject knowledge (for example in the new computing requirements), they do nothing until the CPD is provided for them, yet we live in a technologically advanced world where access to information has never been easier. If we really want to remedy the ills of the English education system, we should:

  • stop making up new responsibilities for teachers
  • stop endlessly tweaking the system
  • recognise that we can’t ‘close the gap’*
  • require excellent subject knowledge
  • recognise that the learner is responsible for their learning

*’closing the gap’ is a phrase for another tirade. Try closing the gap between my sprinting time and that of Usain Bolt!

‘We haven’t the time’ – the problem of teacher CPD in England

It is an expectation on teachers around the world, that they maintain and develop their subject knowledge and understanding through professional development. This is often a matter of personal choice with management support for what is seen as a priority. In some countries, teachers are expected to document their commitment through a reflective portfolio. Access to CPD (continuing professional development) couldn’t be easier than it is now. In addition to the ubiquitous search engines that can lead to a fractal exploration of any subject or question, are a range of high-quality online courses proffered by reputable institutions. In the last couple of years, I’ve accessed several, myself. But how likely is it that teachers in English schools are even contemplating their own CPD, never mind systematically and seriously pursuing it?

Not very likely, I think, from my recent experience of trying to engage teachers in committing to improving their own subject knowledge in essential, key areas of the curriculum. These are otherwise dedicated professionals working in a school with an ‘outstanding’ reputation, but advancing one’s own knowledge and understanding, independently in one’s own time is a step too far. This is a problem. Much research points to the quality of teacher subject knowledge as a key factor in pupil attainment and yet it is known that this falls far short of what it should be in primary schools, particularly in subjects such as science and technology. I was party to a discussion recently about how this could be addressed, given the fragile state of science education in England and our desperate attempts to stabilise it before we lose it altogether. Teacher CPD was seen as a major issue. This led me to thinking about how CPD could be better embedded in real world practice.

So many unhelpful directives are forced upon the profession and the workload has genuinely become excessive (yes really!), that it’s not surprising that teachers are resistant to anything that hasn’t actually been demanded in black and white. We are all expected, however, to undergo a yearly process entitled ‘appraisal’ and I think it might be time that subject knowledge became a central feature of this process, with time being dedicated specifically to CPD. Would it be too much too expect for teachers to identify and demonstrate through certification, a level of knowledge appropriate to the teaching of the subject and for school leaders to commit to resourcing this in time and materials?