Little more than a month ago, I penned a letter of resignation to my Headteacher. After 20 years of teaching, I decided I’d had enough. I had watched in dismay as colleagues tied themselves up in knots trying to please Ofsted, or second guess what new initiative might be coming their way. I’d dodged children, asking in bewilderment ‘but what will the exam be like?’ because there is not yet an answer – that football is still being kicked around. I was weary of having to take data from Oxford and the Sutton Trust to parents’ evenings to try to explain in five minutes, why the Daily Mail is wrong about their child being failed by a witless profession. In the end, instead of resigning, I wrote an open letter to the Secretary of State outlining my distress and frustration at the belittlement of the teaching profession, and the lack of clarity of information being used to influence key decisions about curriculum content and pedagogy. It was a letter, that to date, well over 4000 people have added their names to. Parents, governors and teachers, from private, state and interestingly, international sectors, signed in their thousands. They, it turned out, felt the same way that I did. I was hungry for a professional body that would sit above party politics, acting in the best interests of teachers AND children; drawing from best practice; best research; best aspects of humanity to ensure an excellent education system. And so were they.
A week later, I delivered my letter to Parliament and found myself thrust into an uncomfortable limelight on national television and on the front pages of a national newspaper. What a relief it was to come home – back to my classroom. But I knew that it was important to keep momentum going and I searched for ways to channel this frustration into a positive outcome. Writing for ‘The Guardian’; organising a conference; championing attempts to reframe and reclaim insults – we took up Mick Water’s cry for an Education Spring, and instead of being ‘enemies of promise’, vowed to be ‘anenomes of promise’ – a little colour in a gloomy picture. So when the collated essays and thoughts on the concept of a Royal College for Teaching, commissioned by AQA, was published on April 30th, I had two thoughts:-
- Where is the teacher?
There were some brilliant essays in there. Hopeful, ambitious, unifying thinking by wonderful minds. But not one of them a teacher. When disappointed, I’ve learned, you have two choices:-
Here is my action. It is a reaction.
It is vital to gather and garner teacher opinion in this initiative. Not only because the Royal College, would after all, be ours. But also because every working day, we stand in front of children, trying our best to help them to secure positive futures. Their voices can be heard through us. So when I volunteered to write this response, I thought I had better ask them what they thought, since anything to do with teachers has a direct impact on them. We spent an hour – all neatly fitting into our work on democracy – considering the following three questions and pulling our conversations together into a set of queries and ideas. I’m glad I started in this way. I had a lot of ideas, but theirs made me really think. It’s worth bearing in mind that they are 11 years old.
Our first question was ‘What is a good teacher?’ There were lots of responses to this, many revolving around ideas of fairness and reliability, but also some unexpected ones (spelling errors and all):-
- A good teacher pushes you to your limits, even when you think you can’t get there
- Encourages you when you’re mentally down
- Bilds (sic) on your opinions
- Makes sure that education is not just based on facts and figures – it needs to be more relevant to the individual (I talked about this with my Dad)
- Makes sure that when they teach you, the lesson stays in your head
- Captures our attention and keeps it
- Is kind and can support you through the hard times of your life
- Understands how children’s brains work
- Believes in you and cares about your life outside of school
It became clear from their feedback that it was as important to them that their teacher cared for them and had faith in them as it was that they had good subject knowledge or skill. They want to be seen wholly and not partially. This was a key theme too in the next question – ‘What is a good learner?’ Other researchers have noted that frequently, children equate learning with good behaviour and this class was no exception, but they also added:-
- Has a clear plan – like knowing that at the end of university, there will be an apprenticeship or some training
- Contributes and is confident
- Doesn’t take school for granted
- Has a positive mindset
- Someone who makes good use of the resources they have
- Someone who puts their mind to it and believes in themselves – an active learner, not passive
- Someone who sets themselves goals
Finally I asked them how they would like to be ‘measured’ in an ideal world so that they could move forward into adult life, thinking that they had a chance to show what they were capable of:-
- We want to be judged on our personality and social skills and not just by exam results.
- Parents and teachers are sometimes hypocritical when they don’t allow us to make the same mistakes that they made.
- Being compared to other people makes you feel small and stupid.
- Spend more time learning and less time taking tests.
- Why can’t we be judged on what we do and make a portfolio at the end of school to show people when we want to do a degree?
- I want to be judged on what I do over a whole year and not on one day when something might have gone wrong.
How might a Royal College of Teaching address these concerns? They are valid and it is important they are considered.
The role of Ofsted
I have used this line before, but I’ll use it again. Unless Ofsted is reformed, we will have a profession continuing to participate in a game of football in which they all run around after the referee instead of the ball. No-one starts teaching with the motivation of pleasing Ofsted, but it’s where most of us end up. Instead of passing the ball, carefully from one player to another, towards a common goal, we run around asking the ref what the rules are. Ofsted should be accountable to the profession, offering reassurances that they are providing consistency and support where necessary. The organisation should be positive, not punitive. To get all AfL about it – there should be an ‘Even Better If’ approach and recommendations for improvements based on how the school provides for the whole child, looking way beyond data. This is why I find myself nodding vigorously when I read Alison Peacock’s comments about HMI inspectors being appointed by the Royal College.
I think those 11 year olds offered a strong rationale for reform of examinations. A Royal College should work with Ofqal in shaping and organising our assessment structures based on best practice from around the world, not on our own perceptions from supposed ‘golden eras’ in the past. As a teacher, it is very hard to resist teaching to the test. It is tempting to spend hours telling children how many minutes to spend on each question, how to break the question down – what the criteria means etc. and in the process completely lose sight of the beauty and wonder of the subject. There must be a better way.
A Royal College could explore how, for example in the International School system, the Primary and Middle Years’ programmes offer an educational philosophy which builds a child’s curiosity and capacity to investigate, leading them into the demanding levels of independence required for the IB. There is too little continuity in our education systems because too harsh a spotlight is cast on the gateway at the expense of the path.
CPD and Teacher Development
Pathways for learning, progression, transition; all rooted in the holistic interests of the child would be the domain of a Royal College, and understanding children would underpin the foci for training and developing teachers. Teachers will emerge, whose CPD is relentlessly focused on what children need and how best to provide for those needs. The college should discourage and not license courses which capitalise on teacher fear – ‘How to be Outstanding’; ‘Preparing for Ofsted’ and the like.
A Royal College should, first and foremost, commit itself to making plain and available for teachers, practical and accessible research. It would need to link to and register with gatekeeper libraries like Athens or Shibboleth, as Universities do, providing on line access to closed journals, but more needs to be done here. The College needs to liaise with HEFCE, negotiating the criteria for the REA, which at the moment offers no incentive whatsoever for an academic to reach out to the profession through books and periodicals. Only international journals matter, and it would seem, the more obscurely written, the better.
We also need to take care, since we are dealing with complex and vulnerable human beings, not to get too ontological about things. Some valuable research is qualitative and the desire to prove and measure should not over-ride the notion that sometimes, the very things we value most are those which are impossible to measure. Narratives and stories can be powerful tools for change. It would be the role of the College to communicate and collate these narratives of hope.
A Royal College should have at its heart, a philosophy of positivity and hopefulness. It should not be a punitive organisation with a role to punish or banish a teacher – this is the role of governing bodies and ultimately, government. We should set out, from the beginning, to be an organic institution which promotes growth. Where there is weakness, provide scaffolding. We should apply the same learning principles to educators as we do to those they educate.
Finally I would say, as I finish this, glancing anxiously at a pile of marking, that teachers are time poor but idea rich. We need to find ways of effectively and quickly gathering the ideas of teachers together. Across the country, there are teaching and learning networks, cluster groups, teachmeets and the like. A successful strategy might be to ask all those groups to add, just before the AOB of any meeting, a ‘Notes for the Royal College’ item and for that item to be emailed to a central contact. Information needs to be expedient and accessible: as I have learned in recent weeks, the twitter community is a speedy and powerful conveyer of communication.
I am excited by the prospect of a Royal College of Teaching. I am proud to stand in support of it and will do all I can to assist. I believe it could achieve a level of consistency and trust in education that has not been seen for decades, if ever. It will raise the status and morale of the profession – if it truly represents us – and, most importantly of all, it will give the children of this country some stability and security. And that cannot come quickly enough.
AST for Pedagogy