In my last post I expressed my reservations about the current state of traditionalist blogging and the clamour for a revolution among many of my contemporaries. Some subsequent exchanges about this topic have furthered my thinking and in light of these discussions this post asks should traditional teachers join the revolution?
My observation is that revolutionary traditionalists make the following arguments that justify a ‘call to arms’:
- Progressive pedagogy is not effective
- The educational establishment overwhelmingly favours progressive pedagogy
- The educational establishment is organised and uses a range of methods to disseminate progressive pedagogy throughout the education system
- The vast majority of teachers adhere to this progressive orthodoxy
In contrast to many revolutionary trads I view the educational establishment as a mix of vested interests (CEOs, consultants, gurus and bureaucrats) whose dysfunction is caused by a lack of coherence about pretty much everything. While I acknowledge the existence of innately progressive factions (e.g some Science subject associations) within the educational establishment I think it is unhelpful to portray the establishment as synoymous with ‘progressives’, ‘the Blob’ or conversely ‘Govians’ or ‘neotrads’. Ignoring the existence of entrenched groups that wield power over schools allows these groups to a) avoid criticism for the current state of affairs and b) define themselves as ‘anti-establishment’ and an alternative to, not part of, the status quo.
The only commonality I observe within the educational establishment is that its members operate at distance from teachers and the day to day goings on in schools. Prior to 2015 I might have agreed with the notion that progressives within the educational establishment were very effective at influencing teachers and schools through various conduits but my professional experience has changed: now there is no money which means no progressive consultants, Ofsted have crucially lost interest in pedagogy so far less attention is given to it by managers, only a few of my colleagues are exposed to any pedagogy via the educational press and even fewer are members of a subject association. Hardly anyone uses social media, which is broadly considered a waste of time, for professional development.
Progressivism would, of course, still cause difficulties for traditional teachers if one accepted the premise that progressivism is already orthodox within schools. However my experience is that very few of colleagues make pedagogical choices on the basis of ideology or efficacy, they do what they do to get through the day. Effectively each teacher presents a personal mishmash of entrenched pedagogical styles. It is immensely difficult to pursuade colleagues to break their particular pattern because the pattern is a coping strategy. Here in the South West some teacher training providers noticeably favour progressive pedagogy but, despite this training, I observe a short lived effect as NQTs quickly develop their own mishmash of teaching styles in order to cope with the demands of the job.
In summary my position is as follows:
- Progressive pedagogy is not effective
- The educational establishment has no coherent position on anything
- Since 2015 reform and budget cuts have made it much harder for progressives within the educational establishment to disseminate their ideas to the teaching profession
- The vast majority of teachers ignore both pedagogical ideology and efficacy, teaching methods are chosen on the basis of getting through the day without generating extra work or stress.
Should traditional teachers join the revolution?
Despite some differences I concur with revolutionary traditionals who consider the educational establishment to be damaging. However, the proposed revolution will not be a revolution when the only target is progressivism and not the educational establishment as a whole; that some traditionalists have actually embraced existing sections of the educational establishment that are keen on market based reform or command and control management is a cause for concern. Given that the majority of my earlier work criticises such groups I will be unequivocal about my opinions here: the reformers and the managers rose meteorically through the education system when the system actually endorsed progressivism and traditional teachers were hounded by Ofsted. Reformers and managers didn’t bang the drum for traditionalism then and only do so now because their methodology looks slightly more appealing with some token traditionalism sprinkled on top.
In conclusion if you’re the sort of traditionalist that thinks targets and compliance inspections aren’t going to benefit the traditionalist cause then avoid this revolution like the plague.
When I started teaching in 2007 it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to be criticised by the then educational establishment for using traditional teaching methods. Teaching from the front was said to bore students causing them to switch off and not learn anything or inciting them to behave poorly in class. I’ve never bought into this reasoning and books like It’s your time you’re wasting by Frank Chalk or Andrew Old’s Scenes from the battleground blog provided reassurance to my younger self that other teachers felt the same way.
Inspired by Andrew, Winston Smith, Inspector Gadget and others I began to interact online anonymously describing my experiences and thoughts about the education system. Online I was free to blog and debate with those who weren’t used to being debated with about the cultural orthodoxy they sought to impose on teachers. This juxtaposed with day to day things like being asked to attend mentoring meetings with a behaviour consultant for following school policy on detentions; blogging was a form of catharsis.
The educational landscape has changed a lot since 2007. Blogging and online teacher activism has been an important driver for some really positive developments e.g Ofsted ceasing to grade individual lessons or advocate a particular pedagogy. Most of the traditional bloggers from a decade ago are no longer anonymous, some have published books, some have opened schools, some are quoted favourably by education ministers. Thanks to those ministers there is now less money available for schools which, in my experience, means less funding channelled towards progressive education consultants. My point is that traditionalism and it’s advocates are in the ascendancy.
I am older and hopefully wiser. Having learnt through personal experience and observation of some brilliant colleagues here are five principle bits of advice I’d offer to my younger self when entering the profession:
- Never say, or imply, to anyone that you (or your school!) are better than your colleagues, doing so makes people think you are an arse. Most people don’t want anything to do with an arse.
- There are no magic bullets in education. I’ve noticed that when someone (usually an arse) claims to have found a quick fix careful analysis of the facts reveals gaming, selection or unsustainable practice. Genuine school improvement takes years.
- Some people are unreasonable and/or incredibly nasty. If you have to interact with them do so professionally and for no longer than absolutely necessary. Trying to change unreasonable or incredibly nasty people is a waste of your precious energy and time.
- Teaching will not give your life meaning. I still struggle with this a lot, I am still easily provoked by certain individuals and I find it difficult to switch off compromising my relationships with the people who genuinely add meaning to life.
- If you get into management don’t be a shit funnel.
It is with these five principles in mind that I turn to the burgeoning ‘traditional revolution’ led by some well known colleagues on social media. Most of what I’ve read contains some intriguing ideas and methods that, as a traditional teacher, ought to be of interest yet something grates and has done for some time. I’ve tried very hard to look beyond it but I find the majority of current, traditionalist blogging communicates ideas in a manner that is provocative, self-aggrandising and singularly unwilling to consider English schooling as a system comprised of many parts that all effect each other.
So in order to avoid betraying the principles of behaviour I’ve found most useful I will not be joining the ‘revolution’ or whatever it is my traditionalist contemporaries think they are doing. I very much doubt this will bother anyone, at worst I imagine this blog will be ‘one for a file’ or I’ll be labelled an ‘enemy of promise’ or ‘prog’ – if that is the case so be it.
The Long Walk is a novel by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King). The story revolves around the contestants of a gruelling walking contest set in an alternative totalitarian United States.
Each “Walker” must maintain a speed of at least four miles per hour; if he drops below that speed for 30 seconds, he receives a warning. If a walker slows down after receiving three warnings he is “ticketed”; it soon dawns on the reader that “buying a ticket” means being shot dead by the soldiers supervising The Long Walk. Walkers are shot immediately for attacking the soldiers or trying to leave the walk and warnings are given for minor violations such as interfering with other participants. The event is run by a character known as “The Major” whom the Walkers initially hold in awe and respect but start to ridicule as the novel progresses.
To me The Long Walk has always been analogous to the teaching profession. To “buy a ticket” is to quit, as many of my fellow Walkers have, because teaching just doesn’t seem worth it anymore. I’m not buying a ticket just yet but this blog and the @leonardjamesuk Twitter account are going on an indefinite hiatus. I’d like to thank everyone who has taken the time to converse with me on Twitter. Special thanks to @oldandrewuk who is probably the most responsible for my modest tally of blog hits and @emc2andallthat for tweeting links to pretty much everything I’ve written.
It’s been fun – see you in the real world.
A cursory scan of social media will quickly reveal school managers complaining about sustainability, increased class sizes, a reduced curriculum and staff cuts. In education money isn't stretching as far as it used to but should we worry more about this or the financial nous of those responsible for spending it? Our schools are gripped by a management paradigm that encourages ineffienciency, waste and stupidity – there can be few less obvious manifestations of this than the school policy INSET.
The school policy INSET is where the body of staff are bought together to reach a collective agreement about some aspect of school life. This might be about something important, for example the school behaviour policy, but is more likely to be about really tedious bollocks like the school mission statement.
The first problem here is the idea that a large group of teachers can come to a collective agreement on anything seems ridiculous and school policy INSETS are inevitably the metaphorical death knell of anyones hopes for something like zero tolerance on mobile phones in lessons. Managers are also under the delusion that getting teachers to work in groups ranking platitudinous terms like 'resilience' and 'honesty' or coming up with a sentence to define the school community is necessary, interesting or even motivating:
Head of PSHE & Christian ethos: 'Yes but what does the word community mean to us? How could we define community at St. Lucifer's?'
Me: 'Here's a dictionary'
Yet the sheer ridiculousness of being asked to brainstorm catchy names for the five school values (someone suggested 'Five knuckle shuffle') in this manner is overshadowed by the enormous cost of doing it. In October 2014 the mean salary of a classroom teacher in an academy converter school was £36,500, if one assumes that teachers work a 37.5 hour week (yes I know) then the mean hourly rate is £18.71. Therefore getting one hundred averagely paid teachers in a room for one hour of school policy INSET, or indeed any INSET, costs the best part of two thousand pounds.
The longer the INSET the higher the cost. A former employer of mine sent all 47 teachers to do a school policy INSET for a day (5 hours) at a not inexpensive hotel in the Cotswolds. The fruits of this collective endeavour was five sentences of platitudinous drivel about excellence that formed the school mission statement using up 235 man hours at a cost of circa £4396.85 not including venue hire, lunch, and stacks of post it notes.
It is nice to feel involved but one would think that a manager with a 50K plus salary might be capable of writing publicity materials more efficiently in these times of financial peril. However as branding becomes ever more important in the educational quasi market it doesn't matter if thousands of pounds worth of man hours are wasted because, after all, teachers are salaried and can always catch up with their marking at home.
One of my biggest frustrations is that no-one in charge of education can satisfactorily articulate what they the think the core purpose of schooling is. Micheal Gove, for example, desired a highly qualified workforce delivering a liberal education whilst simultaneously legislating for an unqualified one that minds children for free. More recently Nicky Morgan said that schools exist to boost the economy whilst simultaneously enabling dysfunctional children to 'get on in life' – the services best qualified to do this have been cut to, apparently, boost the economy.
This duality of purpose causes a lot of problems for teachers as it encourages those with particular vested interests to enter schools and encourage the prioritisation of their particular aspiration at the expense of others. For example a key worker may seek to prioritise a children's socialisation at the expense of academic outcomes while an Ofsted inspector may do the opposite – try pleasing both! With this in mind I feel a sense of profound disappointment at the latest offering about the purpose of education from Schools minister Nick Gibb. Here is a choice excerpt from Nick's recent speech at the education reform summit (1):
“Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life. Delivering on our commitment to social justice requires us to place these 3 objectives at the heart of our education system.”
“We all have a responsibility to educate the next generation of informed citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said, and instilling in them a love of knowledge and culture for their own sake. But education is also about the practical business of ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed.”
If education and the teaching profession in particular are being pulled by vested interests, damagingly, in conflicting directions then we desperately need one core reason for being. Gibb has come up with something so convoluted it ceases to mean anything distinct at all; his three objectives are so broad that there is no social malady for which a child's schooling can't be blamed and no reason why any vested interest cannot legitimately seek to interfere with a schools work.
(1) Gibb, N. (2015) The purpose of education. Available from https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-purpose-of-education. Last accessed: 22 July 2015.
My name is Leonard James, I am a secondary Science teacher at a comprehensive school in England. I have been teaching for eight years and have been promoted to middle leadership during this time. The Long Walk is an outlet for my personal concerns and frustrations about British education. Here I outline said concerns and provide links to the archive of blogposts.
The educational establishment
A circus sits at the summit of the British education systems managemental hierarchy. It is a toxic mix of empire building CEOs, consultants, gurus, bureaucrats and politicians. They are divorced from, and therefore ignorant about, the everyday business of schools. They manage from afar via endless specifications, targets and compliance checking. The following series of blogs highlight some of the unintended consequences of this management style:
School choice, competition and the Free Market
The problems described above are exacerbated by personalities within the educational establishment who can’t get along. Some members of the educational establishment are monetarists (mainly CEOs and some politicians) pushing for an education system based on free market principles. The following posts describe how teachers and their work are or might be affected by this sort of thinking:
Many of those within the educational establishment (who are described by Michael Gove as ‘the blob’) reject liberal education in favour of child centered ‘progressive’ pedagogy. This pedagogy undermines the authority of adults, has contributed to a national behaviour crisis and is detrimental to learning:
The following posts are specifically about Science education. This wonderful subject has been routed by endless change, poorly targeted investment and a haemorrhaging of in school expertise.
'Task saturation is that moment when you have way too much to do and no where near the time, tools, or resources to get it all done, and you crack. You know what I’m talking about. You have five customers in line, two phones on hold, your kid’s teacher just called to say Tommy’s sick and your manager is waiting for a report that’s an hour late. Slowly, insidiously, it takes over. You start to shut down, or you start to panic — you’re task saturated. So what do you do?'
– Jim 'Murph' Murphy
Everyone will have experienced the feeling when they are so busy that everything becomes too much, they become overwhelmed and are unable to carry on. Common remedies to this can include taking a walk to clear your head or putting the kettle on. This is hardly a big deal if it happens occasionally but a task saturated workforce is the norm in a lot of schools and we know this because a lot of teachers ending up quitting, which is an extreme form of 'shutdown', because of unmanageable workload.
Teachers who don't end up quitting often cope with task saturation by taking a 'first things first' approach or they focus exclusively on one thing. Both these behaviours involve doing excluding certain tasks, say marking, in favour of others such as planning or report writing. The task saturation is harder to spot because the teachers seem busy but the long term effects are undesirable as a backlog of work in one particular area is allowed to build up.
In the absence of any meaningful action on workload I would suggest that there are a few things we can do to reduce the negative consequences of task saturation in schools:
1) Get the students into school wide common routines and have systems in place to quickly deal with students who choose not to cooperate – just sorting out lesson transitions in secondary schools by smart starting in the same way would give teachers a bit less to think about during transitions.
2) In busy hospitals surgeons cross check pertinent information with another colleague before operating on a patient vastly reducing the risk of some of the catastrophic 'you removed the wrong kidney' type blunders you hear about from time to time. In schools cross checking information and making sure there is agreement on the schools position before a difficult conversation or an important decision is made is helpful.
3) It is hardly a big secret that unmanageable workload is a big issue in education. What doesn't help are 'minion of Ofsted' type managers whose personal remit extends to little more than stating the obvious. Task saturated teachers need people to step in and get their hands dirty which is far more useful than some git sticking their head round the door and blaming them for not having time to do their job.
Now these things
are not difficult to do but require a cultural shift in attitudes towards management in education. If we spent money on increasing the capacity of school systems to ride and/or react to surges in workload instead of paying increasing numbers of people to inspect them we'd do better and have less teachers quitting because of workload.
A very interesting article about task saturation by former fighter pilot Jim Murphy can be found here.
'Remember, if someone comes into your lesson – whether it's SLT or someone like me – we've all taught a crap lesson'Consultant and Ofsted Inspector
Lesson observations, like many forms of compliance inspection, are a remarkably unreliable and inaccurate way of measuring the quality of teaching in a school. Some might argue that Ofsted's decision to abolish grading in lesson observations was a watershed moment of progress but not labelling teachers is only icing a very stale cake. The quality of the method was, and still is, the reason why lesson observations are often a stressful and overwhelmingly fruitless experience for teachers.
As stress levels within our profession rise Ofsted aren't the only ones rushing to sugar-coat thier practice, macho culture is out as SLT and consultants trip over themselves to present their own compliance inspections as somekind of chilled out, journey of self discovery. 'Relentless', 'no-excuses' and 'hold you to account' have morphed into 'critical friend', 'even better if' and 'I know how you feel'.
Now only an idiot doesn't know how some teachers feel about being observed and no teacher is under the delusion that senior managers, inspectors and consultants haven't taught crap lessons. This platitude ends up being a reminder that the established have been fortunate enough to get away with teaching crap lessons while those at the chalk face might not be, they might get unlucky and will have to deal with the consequences benign or otherwise whether they really deserve it or not – that is the game and a lesson observation will still be a lesson observation no matter how you choose to sugar-coat it.
In this series of blogposts I discuss the state of practical work in secondary school science lessons. To begin with I welcomed Ofqual’s decision to scrap ISAs which are the current method of assessing practical skills at GCSE. Last time I concluded that the ‘scientific community’ aka the educational establishment object to these changes because a) they hold an inherent belief in the value of direct assessment and b) they fear that schools devalue anything they are not held directly accountable for.
A debate around these two positions might be useful but seems a long way off considering the typical grandstanding we get now. In this post I analyse some exemplar blustering from Dr Mary Bousted who is the general secretary of my teaching Union. Part of Bousted’s address to the 2015 ATL conference involved a denunciation of Ofqual, whom Bousted claims are staffed by ‘fundamentalists’, she also made several comments about practical work in Science during this part of her speech.
‘Ofqual is a seeker of certainty – certainty that the timed written exam can assess a subject’s core knowledge; certainty that the grades awarded by exam boards are accurate and reliable – infallible; certainty that written exams can assess practical skills – such as speaking and listening in English, or laboratory work in science.’
‘Nicky Morgan should be worried – because Ofqual has no evidence to back up its belief that a written test can assess science lab skills.’
Now this sort of thing really is getting tiresome. Firstly Ofqual considered directly assessing practical skills as opposed to examining them in their consultation document on practical work in Science. They concluded that direct assessment is too expensive and/or time consuming for teachers to do with any degree of validity and they are absolutely right. Ofqual’s reasoning is pragmatic not idealogical and having complained about teacher workload earlier in her speech it seems nonsensical for Bousted to back a measure that would actually increase it.
Secondly we don’t assess ‘laboratory work in Science’ and haven’t done so for several years, currently we use ISAs to assess a student’s ‘planning and analytical abilities’, the work is written work that often takes place in a ‘high control’ setting – in other words an exam. It is disingenuous to peddle the idea that assessing certain scientific skills by examination represents a fundamental change in our approach.
The problem with the current ‘exam’ is that the teachers supervising it also mark it and are held accountable for the grades. It was subject associations such as the Gatsby Foundation and Wellcome Trust that worked with teachers to provide some of the most damning evidence against our current arrangements. If one reads the consultation document this evidence clearly underpins Ofqual’s justification for reforming Science at GCSE. Bousted doesn’t seem to have noticed:
‘Like all fundamentalists, Ofqual is not prepared to engage with debate…It ignores the concerns of subject experts, subject associations, teachers, employers – who argue that the qualification reform is travelling smartly in the wrong direction’
Given that Ofqual even provided a 15 page response form at the back of the consultation document one does wonder where Bousted’s, rather callous, opinions about Ofqual originate:
‘Ofqual ignores the CBI…which is extremely concerned about the assessment of school leavers’ practical skills and abilities.’
‘Ofqual is even prepared to ignore the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, who wrote to Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief executive, saying: “I continue to share the concerns of many in the science community that not having an assessment of practicals as part of the GCSE risks undermining the teaching of practicals in schools”‘
Incredibly we have a union leader concurring with a lobbying group for employers and a conservative politician who is batting for flip-flopping subject associations that didn’t get the reform they wanted and for good reason. Science teachers are generally very supportive of what Ofqual have proposed because doing away with ISAs measurably improves workload and assessment via external examination protects colleagues from being pressured into gaming and cheating. The tradegy is that I’m not sure Bousted is even aware of this, maybe I should cancel my ATL membership and start paying Ofqual £16.69 a month instead.
Initially I had no desire to write about the developing plans for the College of Teachers but after some brief exchanges on Twitter with David Weston and Gareth Alcott about a blogpost by Andrew Old I've reached the point where I have some particular questions and Twitter just doesn't seem the appropriate format for them anymore. I'm not expecting a reply and this blog has been as much about developing my own thinking on this subject as anything else.
I'd like to thank Gareth and David for their engagement with sceptics on social media. David took the time to forward me a copy of the Claim your College proposal document, although this document does little to assuage my own fears it has focused my thinking and I have quoted liberally from it below. Similarly Andrew Old's blogging on this topic has been superb to the point where prominent bloggers usually opposed to Andrew, Miss Smith for example, have approved. Anyway here are the questions;
'The process to appoint the Founding Directors will be managed by a recruitment company and a Select Committee will select candidates. The Selection Committee will comprise six practising teachers and headteachers nominated by six of the main Unions: four practising teachers and headteachers nominated by organisations who have initiated the Claim your College campaign; and six representatives from other key stakeholder groups (three heads nominated by the Local Government Association, the Independent Schools Commission and the Commission of Academy Primciples, and three Teacher Governors nominated by the Local Governor's Association).'
While the Claim your College point out that the founding directors will be appointed through 'transparent, public selection process' the particular structure of the selection committee worries me.
Question 1: Is there anything preventing the interested bodies from nominating a selection committee sympathetic to their particular interests?
'The range of external training offered to the education community is wide and the quality variable. This is also reflected within schools, where the processes for professional learning and development vary wildly from superficial to world-class. The community that the membership represents should be in a position to offer advice and comment.'
'The new College must not present a threat to other professional organisations that are providing value to education and command significant loyalty from their members.'
Question 2: Will the College of Teaching be able to describe the CPD offered by a professional organisation as 'superficial' and not present a threat to that organisation?
'Chartered status must become an achievement that headteachers and employers value and come to regard as a normal expectation of those seeking promotion or employment.'
'The essential elements that have universal agreement are that a College of Teaching must be…Voluntary.'
Question 3: If chartered status is to be a normal expectation for employment how can membership to the college remain voluntary?