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.

 

 


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.


Thoughts from the Frontline: Stress

I've stopped teaching in tough schools and have landed on my feet. A short while ago I secured a job in an 'outstanding' secondary with an SLT who, despite their status, are far more blasé about Ofsted than any I have worked with before. They seem to do things their way; graded lesson observations have never been used, the Arts remain an integral part of the schools identity despite government changes and teachers, by and large, are trusted to get on with their jobs. My new colleagues seem more relaxed, happier and are overwhelmingly loyal to the school, results are not exceptional but they exceed national averages and many staff send their own children to the school which, I think, says a great deal.

Personally I feel less stressed than I used to. The strains of a near full teaching timetable and fatherhood still tire me but I'm getting more done in a day compared to what I used to manage. I ascribe my increased efficiency to my managers disinterest in emulating Ofsted and less frequent experiences of the very worst forms of student behaviour; the largely aspirational working/middle class intake seem to assuage the impact of bigger behaviour problems although low level disruption remains an issue.

I am most aware of this change in my predicament when I hear from former colleagues about outrageous behaviour (for example David Orange, who had been arrested the previous evening, arrived at school and assaulted a younger girl who apparently 'grassed him up') or when I encounter haggard and visibly exhausted teachers on joint INSET searching for some kind of trick, any trick, that will allow them to meet the unreasonable demands from managers cocooned in immaculate offices. For a few moments I feel the frustration begin to bubble inside of me which is as stark a reminder as any that I used to, worryingly, feel that way all the time.

My own experience seems to concur with @Gwenolope who eloquently describes a less stressful working environment in FE and partly with other colleagues; according to this survey 88% of teachers are suffering from stress and, astonishingly, nearly half are depressed.

 

 


Mixed Bag: The Paradoxical Tenure of Education Secretary Gove

Following his departure from the Department of Education a lot of bloggers were compelled to voice their opinions about his four year reign as Secretary of State for Education. In the name of originality I've decided to do exactly the same thing!

If nothing else no one can ever accuse Gove of not standing up for his beliefs regardless of their popularity with the electorate and within the teaching profession. Gove was contemptuous of the fashionable pedagogy that spawned things like learning styles and learning pyramids. He seemingly ignored the bureaucratic monoliths created by his ministerial predecessors: Every Child Matters and Assessing Pupil Progress. His focus on subject knowledge and academic rigour meant that, for the first time in years, 'traditional' teachers had a champion at the summit of the educational establishment – although the battle against child centred progressivism was only beginning Gove endorsed intelligent critiques of Ofsted and the rise of teacher led blogging and networking through conferences such as researchED. In terms of policy Gove's biggest impact was to change school accountability measures to tackle the scandalous rise of the equivalent qualification – this will probably do more to improve the educational lot of disadvantaged children, which was important to Gove, than anything else.

Despite the aforementioned changes Gove's departure from the Department for Education was generally well recieved by the downtrodden rank and file of the teaching profession. Gove seemingly had a monetarist view of management believing that most people are essentially lazy and self-interested and need to be pushed along by extrinsic forms of motivation; his very worst policies – psuedo competition between schools, using broad averages as benchmarks and performance related pay for teachers are the product of this thinking. The irony here is that Gove's ideas about people meant that he found idealogical kinship with the school managers responsible for the problems he identified in the first place.

All of this meant Gove was a paradoxical minister. For every collaborative effort (aka researchED) Gove admired there was an edu-brand like Harris to be praised. Every time Gove reminded us about standards he'd name check an educational 'hero' who'd benefited from lowering them. For every 'traditional' teacher blogger Gove praised in public power would be handed to a non-teaching monetarist behind closed doors. Gove introduced a pay system that relies on individual self interest then bemoaned the selfish nature of teachers taking industrial action. Gove admired Army style discipline yet turned a blind eye to the behaviour crisis. Gove never really articulated what he thought schools were for; sometimes it was all about experts providing a liberal education while at other times it was about free child care provided by, well, anyone the school managers feel like.

I mentioned earlier that Gove stood up for his beliefs – this would have been a good thing if those beliefs, when taken together, actually made sense.

Other articles about Gove that I really liked:

Goodbye Mr Gove

Michael Gove and the bitter pills of education reform

Micheal Gove: loved by the media loathed by the public

Other articles about Gove that I really didn't like:

How will I remember Mr Gove


 

 


What do Ofsted have to say about Science Curriculums?

 

In an earlier post I described three methods used by under pressure Science departments to game the examination accountability system. In another post I complained about Ofsted who effectively praised anyone who games the system using GCSE equivalents by publishing a dashboard for every school featuring limited and uncontextualised data about GCSE Science outcomes. In this blogpost I take a closer look at the judgements made by Ofsted about the varying Science curriculums on offer in different schools. I have quoted liberally from Science subject survey visits to secondary schools conducted by Ofsted during the last academic year which can be found in their entirerity here.

Give the outcomes of my earlier work I expected the judgements made during these survey visits to reflect the same bias against academically ambitious schools demonstrated by Ofsted in the aforementioned data dashboards. It doesn't take long to find instances where Ofsted have judged schools that have, or are in the process of, lowering the academic rigour of their Science curriculum as 'outstanding':

“To date, all students have taken the separate science GCSE’s, and achieved very well. From this year, about a third of Year 10 students of typically average attainment are studying core and additional science, in the same overall time as triple science students. This is leading to higher science coursework grades than for similar students in previous years.” (99% of students were entered for E-bacc science in 2012).

“The science courses at Key Stage 4 are under continuous review, with current students following triple science, or the core plus additional route. The school limits the total number of GCSE courses to ensure high standards, whilst retaining sufficient breadth of study. In the sixth form, some students can study A-Level applied science as well as separate science A levels.” (52% of students were entered for E-bacc Science in 2012).

I have found that such changes are often justified because doing so 'meets the needs of differing students'; this is something that is, often explicitly, considered by Ofsted to represent 'good' practice:

“The current Key Stage 4 curriculum matches the differing abilities, interests and aspirations of students well, with increasing numbers following GCSE courses. An early start to Key Stage 4 has improved students’ motivation. Key Stage 3 has also been recently reviewed to accelerate students’ progress and provide better preparation for their GCSE studies.” (Percentage of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 23%)

“The Key Stage 4 curriculum meets the needs of most students through GCSE science and additional science and a vocational course, but there is no opportunity for students to study the separate sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.” (Percentage of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 64%)

Even when results are criticised a school's Science curriculum can be rated as 'good' if steps are being taken to address these perceived needs of the students:

The percentage of students attaining A* to C GCSE grades in science examinations is well below the national average. Science is oneof the weakest performing subjects in the school. This is recognised by thesenior leadership team and effective action is being taken to raise attainment.” although “The GCSE courses available to students meet the needs of the broad range of ability of students in the school well.”

“School leaders responded to the disappointing performance of students following the applied science route by changing this to ‘additional science’ GCSE for most students. A small group of students now take a vocational course. These changes ensure that all students have access to an effective science qualification through to Key Stage 4.”

However, and this is typical of Ofsted, what is singled out for praise in one school is deemed not good enough in another; the following curriculum was judged to 'require improvement' even though the school is developing courses that meet percieved student needs:

“Curriculum planning is increasingly focused on ensuring students make better progress through developing courses that are tailored to their needs and promote progression across these key stages.” (Percentage of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 37%)

And it gets worse, in true 'don't know your arse from your elbow' fashion Ofsted can be found, more than once, specifically praising schools for allowing all students access to an academic curriculum even when their own data dashboard for the school suggests this wasn't the case the year before:

“All students have the opportunity to gain a minimum of two GCSE qualifications in science. These comprise triple sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), core and additional science. A growing number, now over half the students study triple science.” (Actual proportion of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 84%)

“All pupils study at least two sciences to GCSE level and over half the year group go on to study at least one science in the sixth form.” (Actual proportion of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 73%)

“The curriculum is fully focussed on the big ideas of science, and the major concepts. In all years it is completely academic and very demanding intellectually, even for students with severe disabilities and special educational needs. Their needs are fully met by superb support that gives them full access to the investigative science approach adopted by the curriculum team.” (Actual proportion of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 82%)

In conclusion it seems very difficult to work out what Ofsted think a 'good' science curriculum actually is; 'good' might be offering courses to suit students but it also might be supporting students to suit a course, 'good' might be entering the majority of students for vocational courses or it might involve high academic aspirations for all. This is the sort of divergence I'd expect from the annoying panel of critics who show up and taste the food on Masterchef; it isn't what I'd expect nor desire from the hygiene inspectors who check standards in the kitchen and herein lies the problem; when Ofsted's standards are so variable schools that game the system, and ought to be challenged, slip through the net.

Perhaps the final word here should go to Ofsted:

“The challenging and academically demanding triple science or dual award for all works well, because of very good resources, practical resources, extension tasks, extended research projects, good academic links, and additional science options at GCSE such as Astronomy and Human Physiology.

There is a strong, cross-curriculum engineering ‘Greenpower Formula 24’ electric car project that involves large numbers of girls. There are science clubs, extra revision sessions, good local university liaison visits, and some useful visiting experts.” (Percentage of students entered for E-bacc Science in 2012 – 100%)

To me, as a Science teacher, this sounds like an 'outstanding' curriculum. However Ofsted said this particular curriculum was merely 'good' and it is worth, as a warning to Science educators everywhere, reproducing the only criticism Ofsted could muster about the curricular effort:

“However, there is no formal whole school science based trip for Key Stage three students.”

 


Ofsted Data Dashboards: Spot the Difference

 

In an earlier post I criticised the then recently introduced Ofsted Data Dashboard for punishing Science departments who hold high ambitions for thier students:

 

'The issues raised here have been put to Ofsted and this blog is aware of their response. Ofsted chose not to clarify how the Science percentages published on the dashboard were calculated so it is still not entirely clear whether they are reporting on outcomes for every unique GCSE entry or every student entered for GCSE Science. Ofsted confirmed that only e-bacc qualifications were included in their calculations for Science and explained that it would be ‘misleading’ to publish Science outcomes based on entire school cohorts instead of exam entries because ‘pupils don’t have to take Science’. It clearly hasn’t occurred to Ofsted that it is also misleading to publish inflated Science GCSE outcomes by effectively discounting large numbers of lower ability students who are taking GCSE equivalent Science from the data.

In closing the Ofsted dashboard is a missed opportunity. If Sir Micheal Wilshaw wants to help parents make informed choices and governors improve the Science provision in their schools it would help if the dashboard looked at the types of courses on offer to students and the amount of curriculum time and resources a school allocates to Science teaching. Instead Ofsted have produced yet another simplistic, target based accountability tool that will do nothing except encourage faculty heads to do the wrong thing: Biology, Chemistry and Physics will only be offered to the most able children while everyone else will have to be content with an equivalent qualification like BTEC.'

Therefore it is heartening that Ofsted have made some changes to the way Science results are presented on the dashboard:

Before

After

Although I think that Ofsted need to provide more information if they want parents to make an informed choice about Science provision (for example curriculum time which varies massively) this is a step in the right direction as it is now harder to present sky high examination results to savvy parents without anyone discovering the extent to which those results were achieved by entering lower ability students for BTEC; in other words 100% pass rates in Biology, Chemistry and Physics are actually not particularly impressive when 60% of the cohort are not entered for EBacc Science in the first place:

 


Mandatory Optimism

Over the last 30 years education has been subject to a barrage of reform from the government and the educational establishment. Opposition is limited to token disquiet about any reform from the teaching unions while certain reforms are met with little more than cynicism from experienced frontline teachers who have seen it all before. One of the ways the teaching profession has been controlled and opposition to reform diluted on the ground has been to reward compliance through improved conditions and pay; the TLR payments introduced in the eighties (see Lowe 2007) and the current governments obsession with performance related pay are examples of this. Although TLRs and PRP are essentially government inventions it is worth saying that they are/will be used to encourage compliance with other agendas that may even be contrary to government policy at the time.

To illustrate this systematic entrenchment of command and control thinking I have reproduced the following quote from a teacher training source on Joe Kirby's blog:

“The system in these schools encourages conformity to the prevailing orthodoxy. SLT, very often, have risen up the ranks by being conformist. The system doesn’t encourage divergent thinking, it rewards conformity. Teachers gain promotion, not because of their phenomenal teaching prowess, but because of their ability to parrot the prevailing fashion. The promotion system is actually built upon teachers never, ever thinking for themselves. In the main, they’re follow-the-fashion, jump-on-the-bandwagon, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else’s-drum teachers. Energy is focussed upon gaining Ofsted approval. For too many the purpose is to receive inspectorate approval; to build up inspector-pleasing evidence. Fast track career development? Above all else – do not rock the boat! Do not break the mould! Do not question the status quo! Do not question the actions of the people above you who’ve been the architects of the current, prevailing, failing school culture! Convergent thinking wins out over genuine reflection or principles – any day! The whole aim is to please Ofsted.”

Depressingly there is little to disagree with here but, if one observes the rhetoric of the educational establishment, Kirby's souce has missed the establishments expecations about the attitude teachers have towards fashionable ideas and policies. I first encountered this expectation when arguing with progressive behaviour gurus on the internet who sought to blame the predictable failure of their own methods on the attitudes of teachers.

“Jen, please, take the advice of the experienced people at your school who are trying to help you. The reason why hardly anyone with moderate, sensible views bothers to post on this forum is that it is dominated by a handful of negative right-wing zealots who live in the past and whose advice will take you precisely nowhere in future. Likewise the “blog” of “Old Andrew” – eccentric garbage that no-one with any self-respect would read, let alone bother to engage in conversation there”.

Over the past couple of years I have increasingly heard about members of SLT chastising staff who have the temerity to question the value of, say learning walks, for having the 'wrong attitude' and Ofsted teams describing inspections as something that should be 'treated as a positive experience' by teaching staff. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw seems to be complaining about head teachers who don't realise 'what a privileged position they are in' and that they 'should roll their sleeves up and get on with improving their schools, even in the most difficult circumstances' (see Richardson 2012). What was once seemingly confined to self righteous gurus has spread through the system – this is hardly surprising given the increasingly large pool of smiley, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else's-drum managers promoting people just like them.

So the over riding message here is, if you want to get on in teaching, comply with everything and make damn sure you project an image of positivity while you do it. The worst thing a teacher can do is to be labelled negative by a positive thinking member of their SLT. The consequence for such a teacher is that they are shut up or blacklisted or passed over for promotion in favour of someone who put on a smiley face and didn't complain no matter how preposterous the circumstances. This culture seems identical to what Barbara Ehrenreich observed about the American leadership during the second Gulf war and the American financial sector before the financial crash of 2007.

“Every few years I began to encounter the same ideology of positive thinking being applied to people who were downsized from the corporate world – white collar, middle level people being sent to support groups or networking groups – there are all kinds of names for these things – where the message was it's not bad to be laid off, it's actually a good thing, it's actually an opportunity, it's a growth opportunity, and you'll come out of it much better. And if you want to come out of it at all, of course, you'd better work on your attitude because the key to getting a job in today's corporate world is not knowing things or having skills or experience but having a positive attitude. Somebody who's in an absolute low point in their lives, and certainly losing a job can be that, and just tell them, “There's nothing wrong, just put on a smiley face and get on with it and don't complain, whatever you do.”

There are, Ehrenreich points out, two arguments against the culture of positive thinking and these arguments apply to positive thinking in schools as well as business. Firstly positive thinking (and negative thinking) is delusional; how much time and money is wasted and how much damage is done in schools because new policy is not thought about realistically in the planning stage? The second argument is that it is cruel to tell teachers who are having a tough time, and working in schools failed by Ofsted is tough, that a big part the problem is their attitude.

The solution to these problems is to promote people because they are talented as opposed to compliant and uncritical, this doesn't happen because the entrenched style of management in education is 'command and control' and the voices that claim to represent the front line are as delusional about the current state of education as the policy makers are about their methods for improving it. Sadly such change could never happen overnight because the people with the authority to make it happen are the people causing the problems in the first place.

References

Lowe, R. (2007) The Death of Progressive Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Richardsom, H. (2012) Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw: Teachers not Stressed. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18025202 (accessed 20.07.2013).