So where have all the teachers gone? The existential crisis of our times in education is in teacher recruitment and retention. Just as we have lost the familiar conveyor belt of teacher recruits with university education faculties across the country face the challenge of funding PGCE places and Teach First grappling with high drop out rates, there also is the growing disaffection of serving teachers. A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that 23% of teachers are considering quitting teaching compared with just 17% last year with workload identified as a key reason for the increase. It is fair to say that Headteachers across the country are despairing about maintaining staffing levels in their schools.
So what is the first education initiative of the new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, to address this crisis? Bring back grammar schools. It seems to me that in our post Brexit world there is a simplicity about our politics, with politicians offering simple solutions to complex problems unfettered by any evidence to support their view – just a feeling that they are right. And probably an anecdote or two just to add some substance whilst blithely ignoring the ample data on the relatively poor attainment of low income disadvantaged young people in selective areas as opposed to non selective areas. Surely education is too important for the future of our country to be managed in this way. Our young people deserve better than glib sound bites that serve to distract from the true challenges facing the education sector.
What is hugely frustrating is that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is not unknown to the Department of Education. Only recently Estelle Morris, a former Education Secretary, wrote an impassioned piece in the Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/06/teacher-recruitment-greening ) exhorting the Education Department to take responsibility for addressing this crisis. Surely the keystone of any educational system is ensuring we have the right number of qualified and appropriately trained teachers serving in our schools. You can offer a lavish smorgasbord of different schools, including more grammars, but if the teachers are not there to teach our young people in the classroom the whole exercise is somewhat futile.
This headline grabbing announcement can only serve to damage further morale in all our schools across the country. Even the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, not himself averse to criticising teachers, has been quick to condemn the initiative pointing to the sustained improvement overall in the maintained sector in recent decades for all pupils. So who would want to be a teacher when politicians see education as useful tool to further their own personal agenda? And at a time when the teaching profession is not really valued as it should be by the government for the vital work they are engaged in?
So instead of pandering to the urban myths around educational success, Justine Greening, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, must focus on the what really needs to be addressed in education. There should be unequivocal support for teachers and a commitment to making the profession a desirable option once again for graduates. A comment from a Mathematics don in Cambridge summed up the situation rather pithily. Whilst in the past, there were always graduates considering entering teaching, his recent experience was that there was little if any interest in the profession. Why be a teacher? Until the government can answer that question we face a very uncertain future with a ticking time bomb about to explode in our schools.
Yesterday afternoon I observed a Year 10 History lesson on the origins of the Cold War. The teacher introduced the lesson with the inclusion of a speech by Winston Churchill given in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Churchill, who had led his country successfully through a devastating war, outlined his vision for the future which put an end to conflict in Europe:
“Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
Thus this class of young people received an insight into the concept behind the European Union on the day our nation had decided to leave it. These young students of History also knew that they were witnesses to a important moment in History of our nation. And I think it is fair to say that they are troubled.
When I arrived at school yesterday the sense of shock at the decision of the referendum was palpable. Students of different ages were debating what Brexit meant for them. I heard time and time again during the course of the day the strong sense of injustice – that they had no voice in a decision which will affect the rest of their lives. They raised concerns about a range of issues. Being in Cambridge, an international city, our community is diverse with a large number of students’ families coming from different parts of the world. So did the vote mean they were less welcome in our country? Those who were looking to Europe as a university destination wondered what now? More generally the strong sense of identifying with Europe and having a globally connected mindset seemed to them to be at variance with our possible future. As a school, we offer a choice of five modern languages for a reason.
Clearly the younger generation have a fundamentally different outlook to older voters. Indeed, we know that three quarters of 18-24 year olds voted to remain in the EU. Our politicians, in the months and years ahead, must be mindful of this generational divide. And educators need to reflect on what Brexit means for schools. The future is not pre-ordained. There is no reason why we should not remain globally connected and globally minded. And our young people need to be prepared to be active citizens nationally and internationally.
Educationally the narrow focus on qualifications, the idée fixe of the current government, is not the best preparation for life in this globalised society. The facility to pass a test is entirely different from having the capacity to thrive and prosper, to make a meaningful contribution to society and to respond to the demands of a world where change is, if anything, accelerating. I lead a group of schools which educates young people from the ages of 3-18 and their education for me, as for every school leader, is a solemn responsibility. We have a duty to educate our young people for the world they live in rather than the world their elders grew up in. Yes, we offer a rigorous academic education of which the Education Secretary would be proud. However, we are committed to ensuring the curriculum offers breadth and depth. We value not just the examined life but also the unexamined life. For us, we are about educating individuals not just cohorts because it is individuals who make the difference.
The reason I am optimistic about the future is because of our young people. I believe in them. Let’s ensure we equip them educationally to live a life worth living in our globally connected world.
As the leader of a school which boasts excellent academic results, I am not averse to young people taking tests. Assessment as part of a broader educational framework offers an invaluable insight for the teacher into the understanding of the student at a given point. It also is the means by which the bar is set for admission to Higher Education. No fair minded person should deny that assessment has its place, an important place, in the education of our young people.
So why are some parents getting so exercised by the latest round of assessments being taken by children in primary schools? SATS-Gate has drawn the ire of parents fulminating about the negative impact of the test on their child’s well-being. The media is awash with stories of parents’ plans to take their children out on the SATS day to engage with Forest School-type activities or enjoy a more cultural experience related to learning. This is seen as infinitely preferable to sitting the test imposed on them by the Department for Education.
The battle lines between the two sides are clear and have been helpfully articulated by Nick Gibbs, the Education Minister, and Chris Riddell, the Children’s Laureate:
“These tests are vital in helping schools to ensure that young children are learning to read, write and add up well. The truth is, if they don’t master literacy and numeracy early on, they risk being held behind and struggling for the rest of their lives.” Gibbs
“My feeling is there should be more trust in teachers and their ability to assess children at this age, rather than through testing. The children are being put under undue stress and my argument is what is the value of what comes from this testing. I think it is questionable.” Riddell
Both protagonists clearly are keen for children to learn. Their point of difference is around how to ensure this is happening effectively. How do we leverage learning? My view is that we should go back to first principles, and place the learner at the heart of their own learning. Every decision in education should be around the well-being of each child, supporting them in their learning from the age of 3 to 18. Let’s pause for a moment to imagine a world where a young person’s well-being was at the fore of policy making? What would this look like? I would suggest that assessment and data would not be driving judgements about education as currently they are. Absolutely imperative to supporting well-being is employing professional teachers who have the knowledge, understanding and inter-personal skills to ensure each of their students is supported at school. Teachers who care enough to build meaningful relationships with youngsters making them feel valued. Teachers who are passionate about learning in ways which are infectious. Teachers who are allowed to exercise their professional judgement within the classroom about both the delivery of the curriculum and assessment.
This nirvana is certainly recognisable to me from my early years as a teacher. Teachers are still motivated to want to make a difference to their students. But until the system by which we measure the success of schools and the young people in their care values the well-being agenda, there will remain this struggle for the heart of education. At a time when the mental health of our young people is routinely making national news with handwringing around the impact of the digital world on mental well-being and stress more generally causing real and serious damage to teenagers, surely it is time to challenge the ” cri de coeur” of our age fixated on driving up academic standards at any cost. As any educational professional knows through experience, if a young person’s well-being is in a good place, they will learn.
I enjoyed a very civilised working lunch today with members of Year 10 who had come to discuss with me a planned change of uniform for Year 11. The details of our meeting don’t matter. What does matter is the approach of this group of students who had come to persuade me to change our current plans. They had consulted with the wider year group and were keen to work with the leadership of the school to get what they saw as a better outcome for them and, they believed, the school. They were armed with their arguments finely honed by debating the uniform situation in the year group.
My interaction with these students reminded me that life and learning within school is about so much more than the pursuit of qualifications (at whatever cost). These young people were demonstrating impressive powers of persuasion and, indeed, leadership within their year group. I believe their education, with its emphasis on the learner at the heart of all we do, has contributed to our students being the young people they can be.
Why am I musing on this vignette of school life? Mainly because the unrelenting diet of news about schools is negative and uninspiring and commodifies education wrapping it up nicely in a data bow. In such a landscape why would anyone want to join the teaching profession? Indeed, why would you stay? In the spirit of re-energising the debate around teaching and why we should care that the best teachers are working in all our schools, let’s go back to the fundamentals of education.
“Educere” – “to lead out” (Latin) gives us a starting point. In this context I believe teachers are charged with doing something quite extraordinary. They are charged with helping learners discover themselves, their interests and their passions. Laying the foundations for learning with knowledge and skills, teachers are engaged in preparing a new generation for the changes that are to come. As we look to a future where globalisation and the digital revolution are drivers for change, teachers are readying young people to create solutions to problems yet unknown. This requires questioning, thinking, and creating. This means far more than just memorisation and the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation, the dimension of education which is most easily measured in examinations. Learning has to be more dynamic and interactive and less passive.
The teacher is absolutely critical in this. Their skills and expertise are integral to the learning experience of every student. And how exciting it is now for teachers who are often learning with their students. The opportunities for re-thinking pedagogy are huge with digital tools allowing different ways of learning. Instead of textbooks a teacher can create a tech book; digital devices can enable meaningful collaborative ways of learning; and google classroom offers a fantastic feedback loop for students. There are so many ways for teachers to reflect on practice and to think differently about teaching and learning.
And inspiration remains the core business of schools. A recent Channel 4 series “Born to be Different” focussed on the lives of young people with disabilities and I was greatly struck by the interactions between these young people and their teachers. In one case, the Head Teacher cajoled a student to stand for Head Girl despite the student’s own reservations. The belief and support made all the difference to this young lady and she acquitted herself well in the election being appointed Deputy Head Girl.
Inspiration is important to every student. Ask anyone after they leave school what they remember and invariably it will be the inspirational teacher in Mathematics, History, Music, Classics, Art…. To under estimate the relationships between teachers and students is to miss the point of education. My “cri de coeur” to teachers, aspiring or working in schools, is don’t be deterred by the leviathan of government policy. Once you strip away bureaucracy, the children are still children and they deserve the best we can give then. And what better job is there than to work with young people to help them be the people they can be? Teachers, your country needs you! (No apologies for using exclamation mark.)