What I did during my half-term holidayNovember 2, 2013
I seem to have spent much of my holiday doing things related to my online life, so I thought I’d mention some of it here. Apologies if it seems like a prolonged excuse for name-dropping, but it does allow me time to reflect on education beyond my own classroom.
I met up with a friend who works in an independent school (also, Michael Fordham the writer of this blog) and went to see Tom Bennett do a talk on education research. Tom’s theory is that teachers don’t read research; that a lot of the research isn’t very good, and that research is often used as a weapon against teachers rather than as something constructive. I found myself explaining to my friend from the independent school why this was an important message (even if it is not the most positive one). In her experience, the only time where she had found bad ideas (backed by the misuse of research) to be a significant issue was when she (having started as an unqualified teacher) trained to get QTS. The rest of the time it had been an irrelevance because of the autonomy she has in the classroom. Make of that what you will, but it certainly leaves me, while still defending QTS in principle, acutely aware of how little it can mean in practice.
I had lunch with Mark McCourt. He is a former head and since then seems to have done a vast array of different activities in education and in maths education in particular. As you might expect from a man who wrote a blogpost entitled “The Education World is full of Dicks” he had no shortage of opinions about all sorts of people and institutions. What I learnt the most from was hearing about the existence of a world of businesses, partnerships and third sector organisations playing such an active part in education and which of these, in his view, do the most good and which seem able to get the most money (both private and public). We often talk about the education system as if it consists of government (national and local), OFSTED, teacher training institutions, exam boards and schools. I hadn’t appreciated the scale of what else exists out there, nor how much money or influence some of the organisations not on my list have. No wonder it is hard to bring about change. Particularly worth bearing in mind how many of the activities we think of as carried out by government are actually carried out by private companies or intermediaries.
I spent far too much of the day watching the debate about QTS on BBC Parliament. It really is worth a look (if it’s still available on BBC iplayer or if you have a computer that can cope with the software requirements of the parliamentary website) and, while I’m obviously biased on both the issues and the parties, it did seem as if a drastic change had occurred in the balance of the education argument. To say that Tristram Hunt is far more effective than his immediate predecessor is simply to say he didn’t embarrass himself, but he certainly seemed to be coping comfortably with the toughest brief Labour has.
In the evening, I went to a panel discussion involving Tom Bennett (again) and a number of people more directly involved in (and less critical of) academia. The biggest eye-opener was just how out of touch some of the panellists were. One panellist declared that the students should be in charge of education and that Estelle Morris was the best of the recent education secretaries. Another warned that teachers were scared of expressing their views on Twitter because of the @toryeducation Twitter account (which is presumably why you never see anybody criticising Michael Gove on Twitter). More than one seemed positively outraged that elected politicians had more control over education than they did, although after giving examples of countries where unelected experts ran education one of them did realise they were talking about one-party states. I cannot think how anyone, politician or practitioner, could hope to engage with some of the panellists. Where does one start from with people who are classed as experts but are so removed from the chalkface as to have no idea where power lies over teachers? Perhaps what we need to see is the rise of the part-time professor of education, who teaches in the local comprehensive for at least 2 days a week.
I, along with six other “influential tweeters” (and, no, I have no idea how we were selected), had been invited to a meeting at the DfE. Elizabeth Truss MP, one of the education ministers, was in attendance for the first part of the meeting. We were asked how teachers could be supported with the new national curriculum. The usual methods, CPD and support for intermediary bodies (like the NCETM), were discussed along with the problems of communication. I don’t know how fruitful the meeting was. Only David Weston had particular expertise in how teachers learn information and, as teachers, we all have our own hobby horses and interests to raise, some of which were probably entirely tangential to the point of the meeting. I don’t exempt myself from this. You can imagine where I think the big issues with changes in schools lie. As far as I’m concerned, the content of the curriculum, departmental communications and the advice given by intermediaries are not the first things schools will look at. Typical school leaders have a clear hierarchy of priorities when it comes for decision-making:
- Exam results;
- What other schools are doing.
Whatever the curriculum says, it is how (firstly) OFSTED and (secondly) the exam boards interpret it that will matter most with the DfE’s influence only felt indirectly. I gave examples of curriculum content being reinterpreted or ignored in my subject, by both inspectors and those writing exams. At the very least, what OFSTED and the exam boards indicate to schools will matter far more than anything communicated from the DfE. I don’t know if saying that was helpful or not, but I felt that those in the DfE should be aware of these structural reasons for their own powerlessness.
Afterwards some of us met in a nearby pub along with quite a gathering of other bloggers and tweeters including several I hadn’t met before.
I returned to the tedious business of real-life. However, an article of mine Three Things Which Really Matter to Teachers was published on the website of the Fabian Society, a membership-based think tank affiliated to the Labour Party. If you are a regular reader of this blog then you will have heard it all before, but it was my attempt to raise, in a left of centre forum, the issues that actually make my job far less rewarding than it should be rather than the usual issues that seem to preoccupy the chattering classes when it comes to education. It will be interesting to see if it has an impact with anybody who wouldn’t normally be aware of my blog or these issues.