Archive for December, 2010


Top Posts of 2010

December 28, 2010

In case you are interested, these have been the twenty most viewed posts in the last year (although some of them were actually written earlier). This doesn’t actually mean they were the best, some of them just come up a lot on popular searches like “should I quit teaching?”.

  1. A Guide To Scenes From The Battleground
  2. Never Forget: Learning Styles are Complete Arse
  3. You Know it’s Time to Quit Teaching When…
  4. The Top Five Lies About Behaviour
  5. Inclusion and the Special Needs Racket
  6. Just to Sum Up…
  7. Three Opinions Best Ignored
  8. RELOADED: A Brief History of Education Part 2. The 1944 Education Act
  9. Getting “Terrored”
  10. What I Didn’t Say During the INSET day on Special Educational Needs
  11. The Driving Lesson
  12. The Hostile Observation
  13. RELOADED: How To Find Out If Your Teacher Is Gay
  14. Parental Choice Revisited
  15. Bye, Bye, Mr Balls
  16. OFSTED Must Die
  17. Snow Days
  18. Obstructions
  19. Total Eclipse of the SEN
  20. How Low Can Expectations Go?

The Job that Never Ends

December 20, 2010

Teachers usually have to teach lessons for somewhere between twenty and twenty four hours a week and, we can probably take twenty one hours as a reasonable figure. These lessons are meant to be thoroughly prepared, with a range of activities (i.e. not just working out of a textbook) all aimed to be at exactly the right level for the class, and differentiated for differences in learning style and ability within in the class. If each activity takes only four minutes to plan on average then even a three part lesson with no differentiation would take twelve minutes to prepare and longer if homework is to be set. To plan a lesson with the variety it is meant to have, would take at least twenty minutes for every hour, so planning would take seven hours a week for the truly conscientious teacher. Teachers normally have form tutor responsibilities as well, that usually take about twenty five minutes a day, or about two hours a week.

Of course, students are entitled to feedback for their work. A school’s marking policy is likely to require that students books are marked every couple of weeks. Marking is not meant to be a matter of “flick and tick”. Work is meant to be assessed and levelled and formative written targets included which should take some time and reflection to do properly. If a teacher averages ten classes of twenty five students and each book takes five minutes a fortnight to mark then that will require about ten hours a week for marking books. Every student should also have homework at least once a week which will again have to be marked and levelled, which even at three minutes per homework per week would take another twelve hours a week. Even if there may be marking that can be put off until the holidays, or weeks without homework, then the marking of coursework and mock exams should more than fill any lost time.

During the week a number of other responsibilities are likely to be scheduled. “Duties” before school, after school or at break are likely to take up at least half an hour in total if you include the time to get there or back. Meetings (both in the form of briefings in the morning and after school) are meant to be limited to a total of an hour a week but rarely are.

According to the school rules, teachers should be giving detentions for everyday offences like refusal to follow instructions, lateness or not working. In many schools teachers have to do their own detentions, so if the policy is followed (and this one really gives away the fact that this is all based on the unlikely situation of a teacher doing everything they are supposed to do) then we would expect every teacher to do half an hour of detentions each day. A similar amount of time would be spent on referrals if teachers were to follow the discipline policy to the letter.

We’re not done yet. Parents also deserve feedback. Teachers are expected to attend something like five parents’ evenings a year (I believe the limit may be six, although obviously it is less for teachers who only teach some year groups) each of which is about two hours long. Every student is meant to have a written report at least once a year, and often shorter progress reports for at least one other time of year. Fortunately schools are moving towards computerised report systems which can be done by ticking boxes, although some still expect a certain amount of personalised comments that may take longer. Even if we can cut this down to five minutes per student then we are still talking about another twenty hours a year. It is probably also not unreasonable to suggest that another ten hours a year will be spent on other forms of communication with parents, such as letters home, phone calls to parents of misbehaving (or even high-achieving or improving) students, following up absences or concerns, although this does seem to vary drastically between schools. Altogether communication with, and feedback to, parents should account for about forty hours a year, or one hour a week.

So let’s total this up for the week:

Classroom activity and preparation: 30 hours

Marking: 22 hours

Duties and meetings: 1.5 hours

Detentions and referrals: 5 hours

Communication with (and feedback to) parents: 1 hour

So we are looking at something around 60 hours a week, or half as much again as the average full-time job. Now there are people who thrive on long hours, but teaching is one of the most stressful jobs there is and teachers usually need some time in the week to unwind, and as a graduate profession where early retirement is common it is hardly rare for teachers to have young families to look after, and we should recall that the majority of teachers are likely to have at least some extra-curricular activities or additional responsibilities which increase the workload. Given these hours, it hardly seems possible that many people could survive for long in the profession.

Of course, the (very) obvious explanation is that nobody, and I mean nobody, does the job to the letter. Students mark their own homework, or homework is not set. Marking is not to the required standard. Lessons are lacking in variety and differentiation (or worse, they simple aren’t terribly appropriate to the students). The discipline policy is rarely followed to the letter (I have often felt like I am the only teacher in a school spending an hour a day following up behaviour, even though I know many teachers experience far worse behaviour than I do). So what does it really matter?

Well, all of the things I have listed can be demanded at the drop of the hat. Managers can always ask for evidence of extensive planning; check on homework; check marking; criticise failure to manage behaviour, and generally require the full sixty or more hours of work. Any teacher is vulnerable to the manager who decides that they should be made to do their job to the fullest possible extent. New teachers will always be overwhelmed by what can be demanded of them until they realise where there is room to slack off. We are all inadequate teachers if subjected to enough scrutiny.

The reality of this means that:

  • Many people quit teaching feeling they aren’t good enough to do the job properly.
  • There is a constant incentive to follow a career path that gets you out of tough classrooms and into either a less challenging school or a management position.
  • Teaching is ideal for bullying managers; they can always find some failure to use against a colleague.
  • Most school policies (discipline, teaching and learning, assessment, performance management) are simply a fantasy that nobody will ever follow to the letter and are only there to cover up what is really going on.
  • In the average school teaching no longer attracts people with extensive outside interests. It will not suit aspiring novelists, local councillors, amateur musicians or indeed people with any hobby (other than blogging or drinking) despite the fact that such people might have much to offer.
  • Conscientious teachers will suffer. Leaving teaching (or at least leaving teaching in battleground schools) can feel like waking up from a coma to discover the world has moved on without you.

Unfortunately the political mood appears to be towards worsening rather than improving the working conditions of teachers. Academies, in particular, are adding to the duties described above with covers and more lessons. The chances of an honest appraisal of what teachers can or cannot be expected to do seems further away than ever.


The Education White Paper

December 6, 2010

The recent Education White Paper has prompted a new, more realistic education debate. For the first time in quite a few years government is now acknowledging the actual problems of the education system: dumbing-down, the behaviour crisis and prescriptive bureaucracy. The question is: how far does the White Paper confront these problems?

On the first point – dumbing-down – the news is generally good. It is recognised that: “Schools have become skilled at meeting government targets but too often have had their ability to do what they think is right for their pupils constrained by government directives or improvement initiatives.” The curriculum is to be reformed to have a greater focus on subject content. Vocational education is being reviewed by Alison Wolf who is a prominent critic of worthless vocational qualifications. Testing is not to be eliminated, but will be reformed to improve on the current system which seems to test exam preparation more than ability. An “English Baccalaureate” will be introduced to identify actual broad academic achievement in a way our current targets don’t. Schools will still be expected to meet minimum standards.

One of the more controversial measures is a restriction on who will be funded to train as a teacher; it will be expected that teaching trainees should have at least a 2.2. This is always going to be condemned, people love to tell anecdotes about terrible teachers with PhDs and excellent teachers with minimal qualifications and suggest that this is the rule rather than the exception. However, the reality is that highly effective school systems invariably recruit from the most able graduates. If less, rather than more, academically gifted teachers are thriving in our system then it is an indicator of what is wrong with our system not evidence that we can ignore the advantages of excellent subject knowledge.

However, not everything is perfect on the “dumbing-down” front. Teachers teaching outside of their subject are not mentioned, even though this is likely to be far more of a problem than teachers with third class degrees. While it is for the best that the National Curriculum will be redesigned to take up less time, it is not clear what will prevent schools introducing more dumbed-down non-subjects in the extra time. PSHE is to be kept, despite being one of the best examples of wasted curriculum time. A greater emphasis on classroom-based, rather than university-based, training has some advantages but will not raise the academic expectations for teachers. While there is every reason to be sceptical about the usefulness of PGCEs, a sincere opponent of dumbing-down would have increased the academic demands of university training rather than trying to undermine the need for professional knowledge as well as professional skills.

On behaviour, it is gratifying that the problem is being acknowledged. After the denialism of the last 5 years (exemplified by the Steer Report) it is delightful to see official acknowledgement that “teachers consistently tell us that their authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined”. Unfortunately, the policy suggestions don’t begin to meet the challenge: minor administrative changes on detentions, searching pupils and exclusions. Worse, there is a suggestion that schools be given responsibility for the education of students they permanently exclude. This policy may result in a return to schools being financially penalised for exclusions and encourage schools to keep disruptive students in the classroom. The whole point of permanent exclusions is for schools to be able to admit “we cannot educate this student”. Any policy that deters schools from acknowledging this when it is the case will only harm discipline.

The White Paper acknowledges another problem: that “too much [money is] consumed by bureaucracy”. “Government [is] ceaselessly directing [teachers] to follow centralised Government initiatives.” The policies intended to achieve this are more of a mixed bag. The problem of poor teaching methods being forced on teachers is recognised:

“The National Curriculum should set out only the essential knowledge and understanding that all children should acquire and leave teachers to decide how to teach this most effectively.”

One example of this is excellent news: it is promised that “We will not be prescriptive about the use of the ‘Assessing Pupil Progress’ materials”. OFSTED is correctly identified as a major cause of bureaucracy in schools:

“The current Ofsted framework inspects schools against 27 headings – many reflecting previous government initiatives. In place of this framework, Ofsted will consult on a new framework with a clear focus on just four things – pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership and management, and the behaviour and safety of pupils.”

Unfortunately, the positives on this issue are offset by the delusion that school management is an unwilling participant in the imposition of teaching methods. Despite the talk of teacher autonomy, this is only autonomy from government not from SMT. Schools managers are, if anything, meant to interfere even more with teaching, with more observations and scrutiny of teachers. There appears to be a belief that transferring responsibilities from central and local government to headteachers is inherently a reduction in bureaucracy rather than a redistribution of bureaucracy. There is no recognition that school management itself has become dominated by bureaucrats and micro-managers and that increasing their power is going to worsen the burdens on teachers, particularly when combined with greater power over pay and conditions in many schools. This approach is the major ideological flaw in the white paper; it is believed that giving bosses autonomy and power is always for the best even in a public service where the bosses are a major problem. This is something which can only be believed by people committed to the view that the business model is the best one for schools.

So overall, I would give the white paper ten out of ten for recognising the problems in our schools, but only five out of ten for identifying effective policies for dealing with them.

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