In praise of teachers

This blog was written for The Schools Blog (website no longer available) and was first published in November 2012.

Those who can, teach; those who can’t, become Secretary of State for Education

I was in Birmingham yesterday helping teachers plan outstanding lessons and I found myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools.

When Wilshaw, in an address to the RSA, was asked to define outstanding teaching, he said something which I have long argued myself: that there is not just one but a multitude of definitions. Outstanding teaching can take many forms: as many forms, indeed, as there are teachers and as many forms as there are students! Wilshaw said we – and he included Ofsted in this – “should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson, an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher-led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives [and have] a plenary at the end and so on.” In short, he said “we should be wary of too much prescription”.

Wilshaw went on to describe two teachers who had worked with him at the Mossborne Academy: one was an all-singing-all-dancing English teacher whose ‘whizz bang’ lessons were full of variety and vitality; the other was a didactic Maths teacher who favoured traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods. Both were outstanding. Why? Because both teachers cared about their students and worked hard to ensure that every student, regardless of background and ability, made exceptional progress and achieved his or her true potential.

Most of the teachers I meet do precisely this but you wouldn’t think it to read the press or to listen to what the Secretary of State for Education and indeed the Chief Inspector of Schools have to say.

Pregnant by proxy

One of the teachers I worked with yesterday is seven months’ pregnant. We talked over lunch about pregnancy (which, because of the limitations of my gender, I know about merely by proxy) and parenthood. This is her first baby and so she asked me what to expect. She said her midwife had tried to persuade her to attend ante-natal classes to better prepare for the oncoming storm. Detecting uncertainty, the midwife had assured her that “By law, your employer must give you the day off to attend.” A pause. “It doesn’t work like that; I’m a teacher,” had been her eventual reply.

And those of us who are – or are married to – teachers (and I am both) will understand exactly what she means by this.

Taking time off isn’t that simple: there’s cover work to set, all the work to mark once we return and, most importantly, there’s the guilt. Oh, the guilt. The guilt of leaving our students in the lurch for a day. The guilt that we might, by being absent, adversely affect our students’ life chances. Our students’ futures are in our hands, after all; and there can be no job more important than helping young people – our next generation – to fulfil their true potential. I’m sure teachers are not alone in displaying such diligence but I struggle to think of many other professions where such a weight of responsibility is placed upon its employees.

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A brand new millennium; a new brand me

I’m not one of those people who think teaching is the hardest job in the world. Before I became a teacher, I worked in the private sector as a manager in the telecoms industry, and before that I dabbled in journalism. I have been on the other side and I know the grass isn’t necessarily greener.

But at the dawn of this millennium, I had an epiphany: I woke up one day and realised my working life was meaningless. I was a faceless doll working in a grey room in a grey building with grey people and for what? What was the point of me? I needed to rebrand! I needed purpose. And so it was a brand new millennium and a new brand me! I was going to be a teacher! I was going to inspire young people just as my teachers had inspired me. I had plodded my way through GCSEs – let down by poor teaching – and my apathy had been rewarded with a batch of average qualifications but, inspired by my A Level English teacher (he was fierce, feared and fiery – but by god he could teach!), I upped my game and got straight As and went off to university in love with life and literature.

It’s true to say I came into teaching to do some good, to give something back to society, to make a difference. But I’m not some worthier than thou type: I don’t believe in altruism. Even the people who selflessly dedicate their lives to charitable works get some return for their investment: either they believe they will be rewarded in Heaven or else the satisfaction they get from doing a good deed and helping others is in itself a reward. It makes them feel happy. And I don’t teach because of some selfless desire to serve others: I do it because I want to feel I’m making good use of my life, that I am doing some good – and that gives me an enormous sense of pride and purpose. And it pays the mortgage. And then there’s the holidays, of course.

As in most professions, there are some bad teachers toiling away at the chalkface. There are some lifers who plod along waiting for their pension pots. They let their students down and they left the rest of us down too. There are some bad headteachers, too, who – as Gove is fond of saying – display the “soft bigotry of low expectations” or were good teachers but are not very skilled leaders and so do untold damage to the young people in their care.

But these people are few and far between. For most of us, teaching is a vocation; it’s not just a job. We do it because we care; we do it because we’re passionate about helping young people to learn. And this is why my lunch companion yesterday had refused to attend ante-natal classes: because she couldn’t face the prospect of leaving her students in the lurch. It wasn’t that her line managers would object. It was her decision because she put her students’ interests before her own just like so many teachers do. So many teachers up and down the land work long hours, some never really switch off at all. The media perception – perpetuated by Gove and Wilshaw – that teachers roll up at 9 and sneak their cars out the school gates at 3 is nonsense. Most teachers work in excess of twelve hours a day, every day.

This is not a sob story

This is not a sob story and I am not asking for sympathy: these teachers do it because they want to. But I do point this out because these teachers are continuing to work hard despite a singular lack of, not just approbation but respect and understanding from the legislators whose jobs it is to promote, protect and advance their profession.

Take this week for example..

If you don’t work in education, you can be forgiven for not knowing this – because the media spin told a different story – but there were two reports published this week which provided evidence that the quality of teaching has continued to improve year-on-year over the last twenty years.

The first report was Ofsted’s annual report. The report said that “leadership in schools was key to driving up standards and ensuring all young people get the good education they deserve”. The report, which was underpinned by 25,000 inspections over the last twelve months, went on to say that “schools in England are getting better” and that “the proportion of schools rated as good or better is going up year on year; three years ago 66% of all schools were judged to be good or better; that figure is now 70%. This means there are now nearly half a million more pupils in good or better schools…there are nearly 1,000 more outstanding schools than there were three years ago; there are nearly 1,000 fewer inadequate and unsatisfactory schools than three years ago…[and] there are now 2,500 good and outstanding schools serving some of England’s most deprived communities”.

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Getting better is not good enough

As I say, you’d be forgiven for not having realised that this was the case. Why? Because the headlines – fuelled by Wilshaw’s antagonistic TV and radio interviews – were full of criticisms. The general message, Wilshaw told us, was that things “weren’t good enough” and we teachers “must do better”.

And Michael Gove stood squarely alongside Wilshaw in criticising schools and local authorities for not doing a good enough job. Many of us waited and waited for the Department for Education’s response to Ofsted’s report, anticipating some long overdue praise for teachers. But we’re still waiting. The only message to emerge from the DfE was this: “Wilshaw right, standards in some LAs not good enough”…oh dear. Talk about missed opportunities to build some bridges and undo two and a half years of hurt.

Local authorities were singled out for criticism in the Ofsted report and even some on Gove’s own side expressed their exasperation at this. The Tory councillor Geoff Driver, for example, said he was incredulous about Gove’s critical tone. He demanded Gove and his officials adopted a “far less confrontational” attitude towards educationalists and said he was “singularly unimpressed by [Gove’s] bully boy tactics” and that he would be “really interested to know what [Gove thinks he has] achieved by this latest action and how [Gove thinks] it will improve the education and life chances of [our] children and young people.”

Driver went on to say that “One of the most disappointing aspects [of Gove’s response to the Ofsted report] is that…you fail to recognise fully the significant improvements we have made”.

And this is the crux of the matter. It is perfectly acceptable – understandable, right even – for the Chief Inspector and Secretary of State to demand the best, to insist that standards continue to improve and that inconsistencies are erased. But it is unacceptable and wrong that they do not stop to say ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’ to all those hard-working, committed professionals in education who have helped standards to improve year-on-year for twenty years and who have ensured that this year – against a backdrop of criticism, denigration and downright duplicity (apropos the so-called ‘GCSE fiasco’) – nearly half a million more students are getting a good or outstanding education.

[I shall leave aside – perhaps for another blog – the fact that Wilshaw criticised local authorities for the poor performance of some academy schools in their area despite the fact that accountability for academies sits firmly with the Department for Education not local authorities. Yes, LAs have the duty to care for all the young people in their authority but the structures that enable LAs to hold academies to account have not yet caught up with the academies system. The only means of redress open to LAs is to notify the Secretary of State if they have concerns. Some LAs have reported this week that they have attempted to do just that but have received no reply from Gove.]

Improving results = falling standards

In any other profession, ever-improving outcomes would be praised and rewarded. But in teaching it is used as evidence of falling standards. If I were a suspicious person, I might suspect that Gove’s lack of praise was due to the fact that there is a dichotomy between ever-improving standards (which are largely the result of Labour’s education policies from 1997 to 2010) and Gove’s insistence that drastic reforms are needed to shore up a failing system. But I’m not a suspicious person so I shan’t comment.

Teachers know better than anyone that they can always do better and can always work harder for the young people in their care. They are, on the whole, a reflective and self-aware bunch. They do not need to be told they are failing for them to want to improve their working practices. But they do need to be thanked and appreciated once in a while; they do need to be recognised for their hard work and efforts if they are not to become demoralised and for that to have an adverse effect on their teaching.

The second report to be published this week which provided evidence of improving standards was Pearson’s ‘The Learning Curve’ which was compiled using a wealth of data by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The report placed the UK’s education system as second best in Europe and sixth best in the world. This meant the UK was in the “above average group” and had moved significantly up the international league tables in recent years. And the response from Gove and Wilshaw? Deafening silence.

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UK sixth best in world despite Gove’s best efforts

The report, as well as offering further proof that teachers are getting better, provided some important lessons. Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser who worked on the report, said that the most successful countries – such as first placed Finland – give teachers a high status and have a “culture” of education. The report says that the amount of money a country spends on education has some impact but that what makes a bigger difference is society’s attitude to education. The success of Asian countries in the rankings, for example, reflects the high value attached to education and the high expectations of parents. The two top countries – Finland and South Korea – share a strong belief in the importance of education and its “underlying moral purpose”. The top countries also emphasise the importance of high-quality teachers and the need to find ways to recruit the best staff. This is, in part, about ensuring that teachers have a high professional status and are respected as well as well paid (the report’s sentiment – based on evidence – not mine).

The report shares some important lessons for education legislators including ‘respect your teachers’: “teachers are essential to high-quality education” it says. The government and its agencies should “treat teachers as the valuable professionals they are”. This is the key to Finland’s success. And yet, sadly, the opposite is true here. Teachers face a daily barrage of criticisms – so much so that they are leaving the profession in their tens of thousands. No amount of reforms – whether it be the introduction of backward-looking qualifications such as the EBacc or the introduction of new school structures such as unnecessary and overfunded free schools – will raise standards as well as having a workforce of experienced, committed professionals who are respected and valued and, as a result, are highly motivated to inspire the young people in their care.

So let me express – by proxy – what I think Michael Gove and Michael Wilsaw should have said this week…

To all you teachers, students, parents, governors, support staff and local authority employees who work hard each and every day to improve our education system, to ensure that standards keep on getting better, and whose efforts are evidenced by our country’s ever-improving performance both at home and internationally, to all those of you who are passionate and committed to helping our young people be the best they can be, I say this: thank you.

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