Should Traditional Teachers Join the Revolution?

 

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.

 

 


The School Policy INSET

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.

 


Thoughts on Nick Gibb’s Purpose of Education Speech

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.

References

(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.

 


Task Saturation

 

'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.

 


Educational Platitudes #4: ‘..we’ve all taught a crap lesson’

'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.


Claim your College: Three questions from a sceptic

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?

 

 


Practical Work in Science Part 2: Beyond the blundering headlines

In this series of blogposts I discuss the state of practical work in secondary school science lessons. Last time I welcomed Ofqual’s decision to scrap ISAs (the current method of assessing practical skills at GCSE) and suggested some reasons why many Science teachers feel the same way. This is a rare moment of accord between a regulator and the teaching profession and one thoroughly spoilt by the press briefing ‘scientific’ members of the educational establishment. The doom-mongering ‘it is the end of practical work’ headlines are tiresome and unhelpfully endorsed by tedious education secretary Nicky Morgan. Yet I find myself equally impatient with partisan ‘what do they know' responses from some colleagues especially as some of the most prominent voices are members of the press and scientific community themselves. I think the sceptics know quite a bit and, contrary to popular opinion, they have listened to teachers.

The Gatsby Foundation and Wellcome (GFWT) Trust are amongst the most vocally opposed to Ofqual’s proposals yet a joint policy note from June 2013 (referenced directly by Ofqual in the consultation document) articulates no love for ISAs:

‘There is universal agreement among those we consulted that this assessment method is deeply flawed. It makes teachers focus on a narrow range of externally-set practicals as they hone students to do well in what constitutes 25% of their final grade. Students are internally assessed on their planning and analytical abilities (not on their technical skills) by their teachers who, under our high stakes system, are under enormous pressure to give students maximum marks.’

Despite this accurate assessment the GFWT were signatories to a letter, published in the press, sent to Head of Ofqual Glenys Stacey criticising the reforms:

‘We are deeply concerned by the proposal that practical skills will not be directly assessed, and the suggestion that such skills can be validly measured through questions in the written exam.’

To me this excerpt reveals more about the GFWT’s motivations than the headlines. Their inclination towards direct assessment of student’s practical skills, not ISAs, seems clear if a little short sighted given their genuine concern about validity and Ofqual’s reasons (see here) for rejecting direct assessment:

‘Sheer numbers are a particular consideration…teachers would need to observe directly and carefully a sufficient amount of each student’s practical work to judge whether or not that student had performed the wide range of skills to the required standard. If students’ skills were to be assessed in more than a few practical tasks, the assessments would become unmanageable, yet with too few tasks they would not be particularly valid.’

Briefing against Ofqual on this demonstrates a lack of understanding of departmental level systems on the part of GFWT. That said their letter does, once again, demonstrate a remarkable appreciation of the unintended consequences of our target driven accountability measures:

‘Without direct assessment, practical science may be devalued by head teachers and senior leaders who are under pressure from school accountability measures and tight budgets.’

Yet GFWT's appreciation only goes so far and I think it is contradictory, given their earlier positioning, to assume that Ofqual regulating in favour of direct assessment will get disinterested people to reverse their attitudes towards practical skills; if accountability measures encourage people to take short cuts then more regulation will likely lead to more of the same behaviour.

Despite the clumsy headlines the dividing lines between the educational establishment, Ofqual and the teaching profession are limited to direct assessment and solving the problems associated with accountability measures. The educational establishment need to let direct assessment go and realise that anything consuming money and time is an enemy of pertinent practical activities. There also needs to be an acceptance that, while current accountability measures remain, different regulation is unlikely to lead to a massive shift in values. With this in mind Ofqual’s proposed minimum of eight practicals per GCSE qualification with associated examination questions is a good way to nudge the reluctant while minimising regulatory burdens on teachers who genuinely want to offer a higher frequency of pertinent practical work.