Educationalists, teachers and academics have taken part in the first of a series of debates about the future of our schools in the run up to the 2015 election. Dr Andrew Howes pulls together some key strands from the discussion.
If one in four good, trained teachers is saying ‘I’m leaving teaching, I need a life’, then that strongly suggests that something is seriously wrong with schooling. Imagine instead, hordes of teachers happy to say that ‘my life is my teaching’, not because they had improved even further at doing more of the same, but because they were valued for their educational practice as well as their performance. Not because they contributed to higher than ever departmental results, but because young people were learning something important about life, by being in their class; something relevant to them; a way of thinking; a way of arguing; practical skills and dispositions, and a sense of identity. With teachers who could understand and empathise with them, and then help to build them up.
Tuesday, 17 June saw the first in a series of public debates designed to create space for discussions of schools policy ahead of the 2015 general election. An audience of over thirty educationalists from schools and universities engaged with a panel of five (Nick Bent of the Tutor Trust, Ian Fenn head of Burnage Academy for Boys, Prof Meg Maguire of Kings College London, John McNerney head of St Peter’s High School, Pof Ian Stronach of University of Manchester). The focus was on the future of teaching, and on the training and development of teachers. Many of the stand out sentences and ideas in this post were voiced in the debate.
In that spirit: a headline message to a courageous future education secretary: trust teachers. More specifically, create the context for, and then delegate almost all your powers to an autonomous profession of educators. Retain only a slimline state role: adequate teacher supply, and adequate buildings.
But the point of debate is not primarily to send messages. Rather, it is to promote questioning, and dialogue. In that spirit, some questions for the education secretary of tomorrow: ask yourself and your colleagues, is it education that we value, or schooling? If it really is education, then it might be useful to look at education as a good, in the way that Aristotle did: as a practice that is developed and improved as it is practiced, in a community with the autonomy to develop and improve it. Then ask: what would such a community look like? What is the role for government in that community? What conditions are necessary to support such a community sustainably? What value is there in external accountability in such a community, beyond the law of the land?
Agreed: there are a lot of good teachers in schools now, just as there were in 1958 and 1978. And if good teachers matter, then it must matter what we mean by good. Good at identifying with young people in a way that sparks a realistic passion? Good at authority, and at identifying with authority? Good at the national curriculum? Good at schooling? Good at educating?
One member of the audience had taught in a comprehensive school in Germany for two years, where she found teachers with two years of university-related training, not one, and a lively, academically-engaged approach to their teaching. If knowledge comes to life in enquiry, as the STEM agenda loves to tell us, then who should be grappling with educational knowledge? Who should be asking why Michael seemed to get it straight away, while Ian was too busy looking out of the window*; or looking for a ways of helping teenage girls to think of physics beyond the stereotypes. Surely it’s their teachers, not academics and policy makers, who need this lively knowledge. So then the question is, what kind of infrastructure best supports that? Structured early career CPD? Masters level qualifications that promote critical reflection? An infrastructure which retains, sustains and refreshes teachers, supporting them as part of a broad educational community?
The two headteachers on the panel were acknowledged leaders of education, critically engaged with the school system in Manchester. So what was their teacher training like? For one, writing English exams as a young classroom teacher, and thoroughly enjoying all that. For the other: two years of lectures by the esteemed Ted Wragg on Monday mornings at 9.00am, teaching Latin and French in a leafy Devon school with just one problem family, and observed on just three occasions during the course. How well he would have survived this kind of training in inner city Manchester is unknown. But the classroom had been his domain, and the pressure to do well had been internal: from wanting to do a good job for those young people. Few claim that this was a golden era in education. But it’s surely pertinent to ask, how is the current system forming the teachers and headteachers who can sustain education in schools over the next forty years?
Of course, only part of the problem lies with the training of teachers. Poor teachers are a problem, like poor doctors, but by blaming individuals too much, we excuse the system failures too much. We know about health system failures that lead to patient deaths; about the conditions of child poverty in which aspiration leaks away – and about the education system failures that damage life chances: the Ebacc ideal that inadvertently mouths vocational education as a dirty word; the relentless drive for better test results across the board. What if this system is creating an ecology of performance at the expense of an ecology of vibrant, principled, adaptive educational practice? Then perhaps as a teacher you’ll be more likely to say, ‘I want my life back’.
Your contribution to these debates is more than welcome. We invite you to come to future debates, and also to join us in submitting a letter to the next education secretary.
Andy Howes is a senior lecturer, science teacher educator and researcher at The University of Manchester.
*happily, Michael Gove and Ian Stronach attended the same Aberdonian primary school, though not at the same time.