Free Education Campaign: Professional autonomy is there for the taking (Part 2)

Reblogged from Pedagog In The Machine, aka the Free Education Campaign (@FreeEducation


Pedagog in the Machine (@_FreeEducation)

And so to the precarious question of the proposed College’s relationship with policy.

Alison Peacock suggests that the College should be able to “have influence on the appointment of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector”. Of course this is to be encouraged: but is this really the extent of the College’s ambitions?

In his essay on ‘the importance of professionalism’, John Armstrong says: “The beauty of an independent professional body, working in the public interest as prescribed by Royal Charter, is that it can combine setting professional standards, awarding qualifications, creating and enforcing a rigorous code of conduct and set of values, having an effective regulatory framework, providing thought leadership *, formulating research and policy, and sharing international best practice.”

So there it is in black and white: formulating policy! The days of political interference in education are finally behind us!

Ah but what’s this…? David Weston’s essay on ‘what grass roots teachers want’ states that “Our new professional body must work with schools and policy makers…” – which suggests that to his mind at least, the College would not have the power to create policy.


So then which is it?

Why should we be concerned with the relationship between the proposed College and Policy?

Well, there is good reason to believe that the main barrier to our education system becoming truly world-beating is the endless interference from politicians that has characterised our profession for as long as living memory will allow.

Mary Bousted hits this point home with some force:

The current government and its predecessors have, for the past forty years, driven a constant revolution in education policy. Each succeeding administration, keen to make its mark and widen its scope of influence has introduced legislation to control the education system. We are now at the end of the road of this approach. We have arrived at a place where too many teachers feel little or no agency and where matters which should be left to the teaching profession – matters which go to the heart of what it is to be a professional – are the subject of ministerial dictat. The curriculum, the qualifications which count, teaching and learning strategies, approaches to special education needs, teaching standards, and so much more – all are decided by politicians whose conclusions are fine for the sound and fury of the Westminster village but utterly unsuitable in raising standards of teaching and learning in our schools.

Deborah Lawson hits upon a similar theme:

Relentless government intrusion into education over several decades has undermined and compromised teachers’ professional autonomy, so, to build capacity for such an initiative, there would need to be active government promotion, support and brokering to bring together interested parties and facilitate the actions and dialogue needed to implement an appropriate scheme…

An appropriate scheme

The proposal to establish a College of Teachers presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transfer the power to create the policies that dictate how our schools are run away from government ministers, and into safer hands. I do not mean to suggest that government ministers are ill-equipped to devise policy. Even the most contentious policy initiatives tend to be scrupulously well-informed and intentioned.

Everybody wants to make the system work better – in this we are all united.

However, what is beyond dispute is that since 1945, we have had 34 secretaries of state for education – an average of one every two years. Similarly, since Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister there have been no less than 20 Education Acts – again, more than one every two years.

Nobody becomes a government minister because they want to keep things ticking over. Naturally, each incumbent wishes to make their mark in the time that they have: they frequently admit as much. As a result, sweeping policy changes are endlessly ushered in on a wave of revolutionary rhetoric, only to be quietly dropped a few months later. It is this short-termism that blights meaningful progress, tearing up at least as many good ideas as are set in place.

This is the true enemy of promise.

Even the most adept headteacher would not be expected to turn a school around in two years. They could tighten the screws of course, and you may see a short-term spike in results. But not if their predecessors had exhausted all the short-term fixes. To  change the culture of a school takes longer than that: five years at least. To change the culture of an education system takes longer still.

Let’s uncouple policy-making powers from the short-term concerns of the electoral cycle, and provide the time and space for longer-term improvement planning to take root.

So what’s stopping us?

David Weston suggests that “We will only stop politicians and the media lecturing us with their solutions to problems when we grasp the nettle and show that we can make the hard changes ourselves. Others will stop trying to force change on us when we are seen as trustworthy leaders of change. We are, at present, a long way from this vision…”

This rather self-flagellating assertion appears to suggest that if only we can all work harder to please our political masters, eventually they will set us free. However this is based on an understanding of the nature of power that runs counter to the evidence. In 2005, Michael Gove wrote: “The reason I’m in Parliament is not really to see my colleagues win power, it is to see us at last in a position where we can give it up.” However since coming to office, Gove has appointed himself more than 50 new powers, including the ability to close a school without any opportunity for challenge, to insist that any new school that’s built becomes an academy, and whose Free Schools and Academies Act masquerades as a march to freedom when the reality is that such schools simply exchange local authority for central government control.

Can we really believe that politicians will hand all these powers back at some non-specified point in the future, once we’ve somehow proven that we are worth our salt? Even if we can envisage a time when teachers have “grasped all the nettles and made all the hard changes” – whatever that means – politicians would claim any improvement as evidence of their deft governance, and would tighten their grip ever further. We know this to be true, and yet we don’t want to entertain it because as a profession we have developed a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome.


An idea hat has come of age

Freeing education policy decisions from political control is not a new idea, and nor is it radical.

The Liberal Democrats had a policy in their last manifesto to pass an ‘Education Freedom Act’ which promised to “prevent politicians from meddling in the affairs of education”.

The fact that one of the major political parties had this in their last manifesto suggests that this is an idea that has come of age.

People have talked about Finland so much in recent years that it has almost become derivative to mention it. And yet the message from Finland is as clear as the day is long:

Less is More

Less cramming of literacy before age 7. Less inspections. Less testing. Just take a step back, and let the teaching profession – and, in turn, the student population – find their groove. Just see how quickly we rise up the international league tables.

In tomorrow’s post, I will examine the proposed  College as a champion of research.

* What is ‘thought leadership’? A couple of the essays mention it. Does it mean ‘telling people what to think’..?

Free Education Campaign: Professional autonomy is there for the taking (Part 1)

Reblogged from Pedagog In The Machine, aka the Free Education Campaign (@FreeEducation

Pedagog in the Machine (@_FreeEducation)

The news of plans to establish a College of Teaching – or rather to put rocket boosters under the existing one – is welcome indeed. The collection of essays published last week is both considered and inspiring, as have been some of the responses – including the revolutionary idea of asking children what they think (!)

Perhaps what is most surprising and welcome is the sheer unanimity with which this idea has been embraced by so many different organisations and interest groups. Amid the increasingly bellicose and hysterical discourses that surround education, the stars have aligned and an ocean of calm has appeared. It feels a bit like when the class goes quiet and a kid goes “somebody say something, this is freaking me out”. Or the Christmas Day game of football in No Man’s Land perhaps.

We should probably not examine this fragile harmony too intently, lest we shatter it with our gaze. There is a lovely sense of momentum to the whole thing, and it would appear that we are uniquely poised to bring about a step change in how our education system runs its affairs.

This undoubtedly is a *good thing*. However, as a number of the authors point out, it is vitally important for this new organisation to be – not just to feel, but actually be – owned by teachers themselves. The Select Committee report stated that in order ‘to be successful, the impetus for such a body must come from the profession itself.’ Well, so far the impetus appears mainly to have come from the impressive but distinctly not-a-teacher Charlotte Leslie MP, and as Debra Kidd has pointed out, teachers’ views were notable mainly for their absence from last week’s collection of essays.

So it would appear it’s already a bit late for ‘impetus’. However there is still a lot at stake, and we must take care not simply to wave the flag of approval (or weary dismissal – especially that) with one hand as we mark books with the other. (Any excuse to not do the marking).

Key questions remain as to how the College will be organised, how it will be funded, and in particular the extent of its remit – none of which is currently very clear.  Which must mean they are to some extent up for discussion. As such it is important that teachers engage critically at every stage of this process, to ensure that this does not become just another thing that is “done to us”. As we repeatedly tell the kids – getting what you want is all in the planning.

What follows is the first part of a response to the latter of these questions: what will be the extent of its remit? I will follow up the other points in subsequent blog posts – one for each night of this week. These musings are intended as the basis for further debate, rather than a final word on the matter. To serve this aim, some of what follows is intentionally provocative.

What will be the extent of the College’s remit?

Part 1: Status anxiety

The subtitle of last week’s report is ‘Raising the Status of the Profession’, and this message comes across clearly in a number of the essays. For example, Charlotte Leslie suggests that the college should “promote and protect the status of the profession” and “enhance the prestige of the profession”. Striking a similar chord, Andrew Hall declares that “teaching deserves higher recognition”, and that the College should “promote the quality of teaching” and “enhance public perceptions about the profession” to ensure that teachers’ “collective professionalism is recognised”. It would be “a guardian for teaching standards that maintains confidence in the quality of teaching”.

This is all very agreeable. The problem is that this development is taking place on the watch of a coalition government that has raised and lowered the status of the profession more times than Tower Bridge. First teachers needed a 2:2 or higher; then ex-soldiers were to be fast-tracked into the classroom (what could go wrong with that idea?); then all teachers would need a masters; except those that don’t even need QTS; then they need a GCSE grade B maths… it’s all so bewildering, when I tell people I’m a teacher I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to do so with a sense of pride or apology.

There is a lucid passage on this matter in the essay by Chris Keates, which is worth quoting in full:

The de-professionalisation of teaching, resulting from the policy agenda of the coalition government, must therefore represent a matter of profound concern for all those with a stake in ensuring that the highest standards of educational provision continue to be established in our schools. The removal of the requirement for teachers in state-funded schools to possess Qualified Teacher Status, considered alongside the effective deregulation of teaching, serve to highlight the current government’s conceptualisation of teaching as a ‘craft’, learned simply through mimicking the practice of others, rather than as a complex professional activity.

These considerations emphasise the fact that meaningful work to establish a Royal College of Teaching cannot precede action to place teaching on an appropriately regulated, professional footing in all sectors, both state-funded and independent. Rather than enhance the status of the profession, attempts to establish a royal college without dealing with the regulation and accreditation of teaching would simply serve to diminish the standing of teaching in comparison with other professions.

I have nothing to add to this at this stage – however it would certainly be interesting to get a sense of how widely this is felt throughout the profession.

Alison Peacock outlines a framework for how membership of the college might work, and suggests that teachers should not get automatic entry as they did with the GTC (which seems a bit counterproductive if the point of the college is to represent the interests of teachers and children and to share good practice as widely as possible… more on this later in the week). Rather, more experienced / accomplished teachers would be able to undergo ‘rigorous selection processes’ to gain the approval of the college through a tiered structure of memberships and fellowships.

All of which seems perfectly reasonable, while leading irresistibly to the intentionally incendiary question that concludes this opening post:

Is the proposed College merely an elaborate mechanism for handing out chufty badges?

Chufty Badge


Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley) – A spoonful of sugar?

Reblogged from Sue Cowley’s blog, Lighting a Fire

Call me cynical, call me suspicious, but I do wonder at the timing of this whole Royal College of Teaching idea. At this moment in time there are a lot of things the profession should be very worried about: a controversial new draft curriculum, the introduction of performance related pay, the erosion of degree and postgraduate level teaching qualifications, the increasing power of Ofsted, the increasing privatisation of education. But this RCoT idea has got lots of people buzzing with enthusiasm, and rightly so.

Before we begin, let’s just get a very clear focus on why we would want to have some kind of professional body. Let’s not forget that the main, over-riding aim of such a body should be to improve the education of all our children.

Tom Bennett offers a clear insight into the possibilities – both the upsides, and the potential negatives. (Plus, as he mentions, we have/had a couple of these already – a College of Teaching, which I’d actually never heard of, and the GTC, which we rejected before it could find its feet.) Interestingly, Bennett asks, what if a RCoT started to appropriate the award of QTS (this would please Gove, who will do anything to keep teachers away from the Marxists who he believes run university education departments). Bennett feels that if we get it right, it could ‘change the lives of millions of children for the better’ (although I suspect this is rather over stating the case). Debra Kidd offers an optimistic take on the subject, and she very sensibly decided to ask the kids what they thought about good teaching. Old Andrew throws up his hands and reminds politicians that everyone in teaching has an agenda. Either we care about the kids (the fluffy, child centered romantics), or we care about ‘the intellect’ (the rational, classicist types) but he’s pretty sure we can’t do both.

I’d like to offer my own take on this, starting with what for me is a fairly central question: why ‘Royal’? Yes, I’m aware that the Surgeons, Engineers, Physicians and Nurses ‘have’ one, and they don’t seem to mind, so why shouldn’t we? But hang on a sec, aren’t we living in a 21st century democracy now? Is it really the case that we need some kind of approval from the Royal family (a Royal Charter, presumably) to legitimise a professional body for us? I’m no anti-royalist, actually, I can’t be bothered (they just don’t feature that highly in my life). But please could we just stop for a moment and ask ourselves what exactly is that word/family going to add? I do wonder if this is one more method (Teach First being a prime example) to encourage some decent Oxbridge types, with a proper private education into teaching – give it a nice elitist tag to make sure mater and pater approve. (Please note that as a state comp educated free school meals child who quit school at 16, I’m gritting my teeth as I say that).

I have this image in my head of a meeting at the DfE. Gove says to his advisors “We’ve got to do something about these pesky teachers. I’ve got a whole load of medicine to give them, and it’s gonna hurt. Ha, ha, ha. How can I sweeten the pill?” Then one of Gove’s fresh faced advisors, not long out of Eton/Oxford, pipes up: “Offer them Royal, that’ll get ‘em hooked.”

As a profession, are we completely sure that the word ‘Royal’ hasn’t made us go: “Ooooh, I can say that I’m a member of the ‘Royal College of Teachers’, that sounds good. I fancy a bit of that.” Are we so sure that this is not a distraction or a panacea, designed to deflect us from all the other changes that are currently taking place? A spoonful of sugar, as it were, to sweeten all the bitter pills?

I’m a member of the absolutely brilliant Society of Authors – (no ‘Royal’ required) – and they act as a superb professional body for writers. They give contractual and legal advice, they organise training events and meetings, they fight against changes that might damage the profession and they act as a ‘voice’ for the profession. We have the equivalent in teaching already, you know. It’s called the teaching unions. Much of what’s going on now (free schools, academies) seems designed specifically to weaken the power that those unions give us, when governments want to change our contractual terms.

I think it’s fair to say that what many teachers are after is simply a way to get the government (of whatever persuasion) to stop telling us how to do our job. It seems as though everyone and anyone can have an opinion on what’s best for education, simply because we all went to school. Now, whilst Jeremy Hunt isn’t necessarily popular with health professionals, you don’t catch him going into a hospital and ‘seeing how great it feels to do some surgery’ as Stephen Twigg did recently in a teaching context. I would say yes, we do need a non governmental body to decide how to achieve the very best outcomes for children. But that we might do well to base it on a body such as NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).

NICE is independent of government, but it has regulatory teeth. It ‘values the opinions of parents, carers and the general public’ – something that seems entirely missing in the current debates on how education should be run. The clinical guidelines that it develops offer examples of best practice for healthcare professionals – something my two graduate nurse friends rate very highly. Couldn’t we have something similar for teachers, on educational topics? That way, the guidance would be the remit of a group of reflective and collaborative professionals, rather than something that the government of the day makes up, based on their political persuasions.

Not ‘RCOT’ then (bit of a mouthful, anyway) but ‘NITE’ – the National Institute for Teaching Excellence – how does that grab you?

Sue Cowley (@Sue_Cowley)

Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) – The view from the classroom

A similar version of this blog is available on Debra Kidd’s website (@debrakidd)

Debra Kidd imageLittle 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:-

  1. Hurray.
  2. 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:-

  1. Moan.
  2. Act.

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.

Debra Kidd
AST for Pedagogy
Saddleworth School