Archive for December, 2013

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Blogs for the Week Ending 28th December 2013

December 28, 2013

The Echo Chamber

A round up of the best education blogs from the last week. If you are an education blogger on WordPress, please reblog this post.

View original post 550 more words

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Why That OFSTED News Is So Important

December 26, 2013

A lot of people read my last post about the changes to the OFSTED guidance (11,302 page views at last count). The response to the changes which I saw from teachers on social media was overwhelmingly one of delight. Even people who probably don’t have the same views on pedagogy as I do, welcomed it because it indicated that teachers might have more freedom to teach how they choose; a principle that is accepted well beyond those whose style of teaching is furthest from the “OFSTED model”.

However, I suspect the importance is clearest to those who have kept up on the recent controversies (particularly on this blog) over how inspectors behave. While the full text addressed a lot of points that have been raised by a lot of people, the first paragraph was almost point for point about the issues raised here and I will review every every part of it here. It begins:

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.

This is a message which I had, foolishly, publicised back in October 2012. I drew attention to it in a blogpost which transcribed a speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw and quoted from the (then) most recent OFSTED handbook, both of which explained that there was no preferred teaching style. I did so because I had heard again, and again, in schools that teachers were expected to use groupwork; minimise time spent explaining and leave students working “independently” as much as possible in order to meet OFSTED requirements. As an advocate of “traditional” rather than “progressive” teaching methods, I wanted people to know that traditional teaching wasn’t condemned by the inspectorate.

I was wrong. Not much later, I had the misfortune to go through an OFSTED inspection and saw first hand how inspectors could ignore results and look only for the approved style of teaching. I could rant about my personal experience at great length, but for the sake of anonymity I will keep details to myself. Nevertheless, I was soon looking to see whether my experience was typical or not. I found out that it was. Far from having no views about the styles of teaching I kept finding the same few criticisms of teaching in OFSTED reports from inspections that were suppose to have been carried out under the very handbook I had quoted from. I also found preferred teaching styles and methods in other documents produced by OFSTED. This is why the next point is key:

Moreover, they [i.e. inspectors] must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance.

While the three documents mentioned above seem to have the right message about teaching styles (particularly in the redraft of the handbook from last summer), and Wilshaw has reinforced this elsewhere, plenty of other OFSTED documents have had, and do have, a very clear agenda. In this blogpost I listed examples of a very “progressive” approach to maths teaching in OFSTED “good practice” videos and case studies. In another post I indicated some similar content in other best practice videos (including one for English in which it was claimed flip cameras were “essential”). These were temporarily removed but soon returned. The subject specific guidance (meant for subject surveys) was particularly bad, as I pointed out here. Even after they disappeared they still had an effect on the subject survey reports, and when they returned they were as bad as ever.

For example, they [inspectors] should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

I found repeated complaints about teacher talk and teachers dominating lessons in OFSTED reports from September 2012 – February 2013 which can be found in this post. Some examples from March 2013 are in this post. It was also in reports from summer term 2013 and the report on careers guidance (quoted here). It continued last term as demonstrated here. It has become so much a part of what is expected that one company offered training in meeting “OFSTED’s minimum talk expectations” . What is particularly important in the new guidance is the mention of ” unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time”. The standard excuse (discussed here) is that when OFSTED condemn teacher talk they are actually condemning a lack of learning that, it is asserted, has resulted from it. Now the burden of proof seems to have shifted to the inspectors.

The next part of the guidance says:

It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual.

The possibility that OFSTED were demanding differentiated work far beyond what was practical was one I raised here.

The next part is, again, particularly welcome:

Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable.

Comments from OFSTED reports about the need for independent work can be found in my post about September 2012- February 2013 reports. And in the reports in this March 2013 post. It was also in reports from summer term 2013 (quoted here). It continued this term as demonstrated here and here. It also featured heavily in the subject specific guidance. It even appeared in the style guidance for writing reports (see the second part of this post).

On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

This seems to sum up some of the other points rather well. OFSTED had been following an ideology, much established in England since at least the sixties, which claims that less is always more when it comes to teaching, and that students learn more when left to work through activities, talk to each other or research for themselves. Often this is combined with a belief that to be told something by a teacher is boring and oppressive, while there is something inherently “engaging” (a weasel word for “entertaining”) about the “child-centred” methods. As well as the continual demands for “independence” and condemnations of teacher talk, it also resulted in other dubious practices endorsed by OFSTED. The belief that it was better for questions and activities to be “open-ended” (i.e. not have one particular answer or intended outcome) was one example of this. The promotion of poorly structured methods for teaching literacy was another.

These are complex debates, and OFSTED had, for over a decade, silenced one side of that debate. That the debate continues was shown by a few responses to the OFSTED news that were more cautious or even negative. Some of those on the “progressive” side of the educational debate feared either that teaching would suffer if traditional methods were permitted, or that what was now permitted would become compulsory. The latter point is, I’m sure, legitimate and the correct location of the limits of teacher freedom are a difficult issue and one worth returning to in more depth, although it is a bit rich to hear from those advocating an ideology which has been the unchallenged orthodoxy in so many schools for so long. The former point is one I have no time for. Teaching is about learning and far from being a threat to that, the case for traditional teaching has always been strong and usually shouted down rather than directly challenged. The evidence that explicit instruction should not be minimised is incredibly strong, as pointed out by Kirschner et al (2006). More widely in the debate about what works (for instance as shown in Hattie’s Visible Learning), the high effect sizes for direct instruction, and low effect sizes for problem-solving learning and discovery learning, illustrates how harmful OFSTED’s preferences are likely to have been. And while there is no clear-cut evidence that, mixed ability teaching, groupwork or project-based learning are ineffective there is equally no good evidence for why they should be generally preferred to the alternatives. This empirical background to the ideological debate is one that, still, too few teachers have heard.

Which brings us to another point, that of restitution. Highly effective teachers have been bullied out, forced to change teaching style, or had their careers utterly ruined by OFSTED’s war on traditional teaching. While we can celebrate the moves to stop this in future (while being acutely aware that it might only be a temporary reprieve) what can actually happen to undo the damage and injustices already done? There are schools run by people who are only there because of their willingness to denounce traditional teaching in favour of the latest fad. There are those who have left teaching rather than abandon traditional teaching. This does nothing to rebalance the scales or change the balance of power so that those advocating progressive education no longer have the whiphand within schools. The harm done by OFSTED is a fact of life and we have no reason to think that under a weaker secretary of state it might not quickly return to old habits. I described in this blogpost what I think needs to be done about OFSTED (and here why I thought gradual reform wasn’t working and here some of the problems with how OFSTED is organised). That said, I do think a small part of that blogpost on what should change  has now been addressed, specifically  this part:

Connected to the issue of what inspectors are looking for is the issue of how it is described. There is a strong tradition in education debate. largely on the progressive side, to use words in ambiguous ways or even to redefine words to mean something else. Phonics denialists will often redefine the word “reading” so as to include guessing the meaning of a word you can’t actually read. Students will be told to work in groups in order to show “independence”. I heard a senior figure in OFSTED explain that references to “fluency” in the new National Curriculum should be interpreted to mean understanding concepts, not being able to recall information. I cannot overstate the extent to which everything in education has to be clearly stated and clearly defined. This does not happen with OFSTED publications. It is hard to get across the bizarre conversations you can have about OFSTED criteria. I have shown people the section of the OFSTED handbook which says: “[n]ot all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, may be seen in a single observation”  only to be told that this simply confirms that they will be looking for those things generally. Very recently, I have been told that the passages in the latest handbook about how outstanding behaviour implies that “[p]upils’ consistently display a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning” means that students must be entertained by the teaching and that this will be expected if lesson observations are to be given an outstanding. I’m still being told that “independence” (meaning groupwork) is what OFSTED will want to see and that OFSTED will only tolerate marking in the form of a written dialogue with the student…

It doesn’t help that there is still jargon in the handbook, the maths section talks of  ”requir[ing] pupils to think and reason for themselves” which in education debate can mean a ludicrous variety of things many of which require particular types of teaching and activity.  Wilshaw may be intent on removing overly proscriptive phrases from the OFSTED vocabulary, but this has often just created ambiguity. It is not enough simply to say “we won’t require X”, you have to say “we are perfectly happy to see Z”.  Anything which OFSTED have appeared to be against in the past needs to be directly rehabilitated and declared permissible in the handbook, otherwise old habits will continue.

But, of course, this could just be another false dawn. I had recently suggested here that there were indicators from reports and training that OFSTED had already changed. I may have spoken too soon; people have contacted me with details of some very recent reports. The following two examples come from reports published just before the Christmas holidays based on mid-November inspections:

What does the school need to do to improve further?  Improve teaching so that it is at least good by:.. giving students time to work independently and to think for themselves…  Students become bored when teachers talk for too long and give them too few opportunities to tackle high-quality independent work. . As a result, they become over-reliant on teachers.

Farnborough School Technology College, Nottingham

The quality of teaching requires improvement…  In the lessons where teaching was less effective, the pace was too slow because the teacher talked too much. In these lessons the students were given too few opportunities to think for themselves or discuss their developing knowledge and understanding with their classmates… Students spoken to in Key Stage 3 were particularly unhappy about the slow pace of some lessons.

Newman Catholic School, Carlisle

These are two schools which got a 4 and a 3 respectively. Whether they would have done better if they had conformed to the “OFSTED teaching style” is an open question, but one which will no doubt affect how those schools respond to the reports. At least now any school getting feedback like this would be able to challenge it directly as evidence that inspectors were exceeding their authority. It remains to be seen how much actual change will now happen, but vigilance will be key. If inspectors are ignoring the guidance, teachers, unions and SMT need to be challenging them on it, not just when it affects a school’s grade, but whenever it can have influence on practice or policy within schools. We now have what was most needed, clear guidance that traditional teaching must be permitted, we must work hard to make sure that this is understood by every inspector, consultant and school.

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A Christmas Miracle – OFSTED Get It Right For Once

December 23, 2013

Thanks to @ClerktoGovernor for being the first to point this out to me.

OFSTED published their Subsidiary guidance supporting the inspection of maintained schools and academies today. This is the section on teaching (points 64-67):

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

When in lessons, also remember that we are gathering evidence about a variety of aspects of provision and outcomes. We are not simply observing the features of the lesson but we are gathering evidence about a range of issues through observation in a lesson. Do not focus on the lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school.

When giving feedback, inspectors must not argue that they are unable to give a particular grade because of the time spent in the lesson.

Inspectors must not aggregate the grades given for teaching is a formulaic or simplistic way in order to evaluate its quality overall.

This isn’t even half-hearted or ambiguous. This is exactly what I wanted to see.

Thank you, OFSTED.

Now, the task for those of us in schools is to make sure this is shown to every SMT type, every consultant and every person with “teaching and learning” in their job description and that no inspector gets into a classroom without confirming that they are aware of this section of the guidance. Every union rep should be making sure that this is known to everyone carrying out lesson observations of your members. Every governor needs to make certain it’s reflected in their school’s teaching and learning policy. This is as good a protection as we’ve ever had. Don’t let it be ignored.

Merry Christmas.

Update 30/12/2013: I have written an analysis of why this is such an important change, in light of previous issues raised on this blog, here.

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They’re Back – OFSTED Subject Specific Guidance Notes

December 21, 2013

Having written a blogpost on Thursday about how OFSTED’s terrible subject specific guidance had disappeared from the website for “review”, I was surprised to see the revised versions appear yesterday.

I don’t have time to locate the old versions and see exactly what’s changed, but nothing much jumps out as having changed at all. I documented in this post in March all the ways in which independence from the teacher is praised in OFSTED guidance. Looking through what I wrote then (and ignoring PE, EBE and Design and Technology as the guidance notes for these are still absent) the only change to any of the statements I found then pushing independence is the following for languages:

Precisely targeted support from other adults encourages all pupils to develop independence and a desire to use the target language for real communication.

has changed to

All pupils develop independence and a desire to use the target language for real communication due to precisely targeted support.

Other than this, all the existing demands that students show they can work independently are still there. While nobody is against independence resulting from education, demands to demonstrate it to OFSTED (and to demonstrate “exceptional independence” to be considered outstanding), can only discourage traditional teaching. This is particularly true when there are complaints about “teaching methods [which] do not encourage independent thought” in science and passages like this about outstanding maths teaching:

Teaching is rooted in the development of all pupils’ conceptual understanding of important concepts and progression within the lesson and over time.

…Teachers nurture mathematical independence, allowing time for thinking and encouraging discussion. Problem- solving, discussion and investigation are integral to pupils’ learning of mathematics…

 … [Teachers] use a very wide range of teaching strategies to stimulate all pupils’ active participation in their learning, together with innovative and imaginative resources, including practical activities and, where appropriate, the outdoor environment.

The contrast between this description and the views about maths of the chief inspector and ministers, not to mention the emphasis of the new National Curriculum, shows exactly how little OFSTED have changed and how much of a threat they remain to traditional teachers who believe that explanation and practice are more important in maths than discussion and investigation.

While I haven’t time to read all the guidance for every subject, I couldn’t resist looking up groupwork. You may recall that Michael Gove had criticised OFSTED’s promotion of groupwork, saying:

…Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.

As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.

The good news is that Ofsted – under its inspirational new leadership – is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud. [my italics]

This was in September. Yet in a brief look at the new subject guidance I easily found examples of groupwork being required to be viewed positively under the subject survey gudance. In modern languages, outstanding achievement requires students “understand that in order to be successful they will need to work collaboratively”. In Art, teaching will require improvement if there “are limited opportunities for pupils to collaborate with their peers”. Good achievement in English requires that:

Pupils express their ideas clearly and well in discussion and work effectively in different groups. They are able to show independence and initiative, for instance raising thoughtful questions or helping to drive forward group work.

There are plenty of other beautiful examples of progressive education ideology. The description of outstanding achievement in history mentions knowledge once, but has four different points about types of critical thinking and two about attitude. In RE, outstanding achievement requires that students “show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their responses to their learning in RE” while inadequate teaching can be identified where “Teachers do not ensure that lessons are structured around the development of skills of enquiry and reflection”. Outstanding English teaching must include “innovative classroom approaches, including well-planned drama activities”.

While these descriptions should only impact on subject survey visits, this guidance, and the resulting subject reports, will be fed into schools as what is best practice in each subject, or even what will be required in all OFSTED inspections. Once again, OFSTED is making life uncomfortable for anybody with a more traditional view of pedagogy. Once again, what the chief inspector says and what the secretary of state says seems irrelevant to the behaviour of OFSTED’s subject specialists. Once again, the lack of political will to take on OFSTED results in an organisation acting as if it is accountable to nobody.

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Blogs for the Week Ending 21st December 2013

December 21, 2013
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Some Progress with OFSTED (and how little difference it makes)

December 19, 2013

Back in March 2013, I wrote one of my blogposts about the difference between what Sir Michael Wilshaw and the OFSTED handbook say and what OFSTED say in other official documents. In that blogpost I showed multiple examples of how the OFSTED subject specific guidance ignores the changes in the handbook and instead continued to push for independence and less guidance from teachers. It’s not inconceivable that this, and similar posts, would have been picked up on by those with the power to change things and I had heard rumours from more than one source that OFSTED were hoping to do something about this sort of problem (although the rumours also suggested that they considered it to be a problem of “language” rather than ideology). And so it can only be good news to see that if I now follow the link in that post to the subject specific guidance I find no documents and instead find this:

Screenshot 2013-12-19 at 09.24.37

This is not the first time something I have criticised on the OFSTED website has disappeared and, whether my blogpost was the cause, or it was just a coincidence, the absence of these documents has to be good news. However, this is also a good opportunity to have a look at how little effect such changes have, given the way OFSTED works. Firstly, we have what prompted me to look into this issue again. A primary teacher told me on Twitter that he was shown these during INSET:

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These are two of the documents which have disappeared from the website. His school were given them by a consultant a few weeks earlier and he was assured they were up-to-date. This strikes me as one of the primary reasons why Wilshaw’s changes in OFSTED don’t change things on the ground. There are large numbers of private consultants, many who have worked as, or been trained as, inspectors who have a vested interest in being able to present “insider” information to schools. What they say will be the orthodoxy regardless of what Sir Michael Wilshaw says, and if what he says is that there is no fixed expectation or no checklist of things that must be done then consultants will continue with the previous orthodoxy. Until private consultancy is regulated, curtailed, or properly separated from involvement in OFSTED then we can expect old orthodoxies to continue.

Of course, what consultants say is only part of the problem. The question also has to be raised about whether inspectors have moved away from the old orthodoxy within the subjects. Having looked into it recently for this post and because it has always been the subject where the strongest differences between Wilshaw and his inspectors exist, I will look at primary maths teaching. Just to remind you, the old OFSTED subject guidance for mathematics said this is what outstanding maths teaching looks like:

Teachers nurture mathematical independence, allowing time for thinking and encouraging discussion. Problem- solving, discussion and investigation are integral to pupils’ learning of mathematics…

By contrast (as you’ll have seen from those previous posts I’ve linked to), Sir Michael Wilshaw has praised a “didactic” secondary maths teacher, said a “boring” maths lesson was “fine” and indicated to the Times that “he had long seen a need to replace the national curriculum with one that emphasised … a more traditionalist approach, especially in maths and English”. So in practice, what have the inspectors doing maths surveys in primary schools been saying about the best ways to teach? Well there have been 4 survey visits looking at primary maths this term. Here are some of the highlights.

 Teaching in mathematics is good. Teachers … make effective use of games and practical tasks to catch pupils’ interest; for example, Year 6 pupils were calculating the costs to school of buying new sports equipment. Effective features in teaching seen were the frequent use of partner-work and encouragement to share thinking… The curriculum in mathematics is good. The emphasis on the four rules of number is supported by investigations and problem solving, with some links to work in other subjects and activities in termly ‘mathematics mornings’… Areas for improvement, which we discussed, include… widening further the use of ‘real-life’ situations and curricular themes to pose mathematical problems in all year groups which ensure the use and application of strategies taught in mathematics lessons…

Mill Hill Primary School

Pupils are being well equipped to be able to solve problems and to apply fluently their number skills when solving problems. It is apparent that they  enjoy the challenge of working together to solve problems. For example, the Year 3 and 4 pupils worked very cooperatively on a challenging problem that involved placing treasure on the pirate ship without sinking it… Pupils benefit from regular opportunities to consolidate their learning through well-prepared problem-solving activities that stretch their thinking and reasoning skills. As well as this, teachers ensure that pupils are developing a fluency in their understanding of number by reinforcing the links and relationships between numbers and operations.

The Billinghay Church of England Primary School

Teaching in mathematics is outstanding. The quality of teaching is always good with much that is outstanding. Teachers are expert at posing problems in an exciting and interesting context that enthuses pupils to work hard together to reach a solution. For example, in a Year 3 lesson, pupils were working fluently with digit combinations to help the Big Friendly Giant to remember the pin number of his mobile phone… A major strength of the curriculum is the emphasis on problem solving and reasoning as a means by which pupils further develop their fluency when handling numbers. As one pupil reported ‘We like problems because it gets your brain thinking more.’ During the inspection, pupils of all ages were seen successfully and independently solving problems or carrying out investigations involving shape, number, measures and data handling. Useful links are established between mathematics and other subjects of the curriculum.

Orchard Primary School and Nursery

Occasionally, adults were too quick to instruct rather than draw out pupils’ ideas and explanations. The mathematics curriculum has breadth and depth with a strengthening balance of well thought-out challenges for pupils to use and apply what they learn in mathematics lessons. The emphasis on practical experiences and use of resources, such as single unit cubes and ten-sticks, promote conceptual understanding and a smooth move into mental calculations. Although some mathematics is integral to work in other subjects, the content has not been rigorously planned to show how it augments learning and/or gives a fair coverage of mathematical aspects.

Reid Street Primary School (although it has to be acknowledged that this one, the most recent, had considerable emphasis on fluency and basic knowledge).

All of these have been since the most recent revision of the handbook, the one that states again and again that there is no one preferred style of teaching. The OFSTED webpage with the vanished subject guidance is dated 29th July 2013, so unless this refers to an earlier revision, these are all likely to have been produced since the old subject guidance went under review. It is worth mentioning that the criteria in subject guidance are not meant to be used in general inspections, but are frequently quoted as if they are.

Just as there is a block on change caused by consultants recycling old ideas, there is a bigger block caused by inspectors who are either ignoring the idea that there is not meant to be a preferred way to teach, or are simply unaware that an emphasis on problem-solving and investigations in primary maths is neither uncontroversial nor supported by good evidence of effectiveness. As ever, change from above in OFSTED does not mean teachers are no longer slave to the old regime as consultants and inspectors follow the same agenda they’ve followed for years.

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The Darkest Term: Teacher Stress and Depression

December 17, 2013

It’s been a bit of a tough term for me. Nothing new, pretty much the sort of thing I was writing about years ago (for instance here and here), although that in itself is a sign there has been no Govian revolution in schools. I’ve pretty much extracted myself from my difficulties now, but I noticed that some of the people I was discussing those difficulties with were in even worse situations and, where they were discussing them on Twitter, they were finding lots of people in similar situations. It seemed like many teachers I knew simply weren’t coping. This led to me make the following Tweet:

Screenshot 2013-12-16 at 19.18.37

As you can see, it immediately got a large number of retweets, causing me to reflect some more on the extent to which people end up being made ill by teaching in the system as it currently is. I asked for people to share their experiences and here are some of the comments I got about people’s own experiences and what they’ve seen happen to colleagues. (Minor changes have been made in some cases in order to ensure anonymity and for clarity). You probably won’t want to read this if you are somebody who is contemplating becoming a teacher.

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To sum up, I have been teaching for 10 years now in mainstream and BESD. Last year has been awful. Wanted to quit; couldn’t cope; cried all the time at home; worked ridiculous hours to keep up; didn’t sleep. Also, I’ve put on nearly 3 stone through poor diet, eating on the run and comfort eating and look about 50 (I’m 31). I went to the doctors because I was ill a lot and, once I’d explained symptoms, he medicated me for work-related anxiety.

Months passed and there was no change really so I went back. Now I take mild antidepressants too on top of anxiety meds. Generally it’s helped and I can cope better but I definitely had to get out of my current school as it is going to the dogs. So short-staffed it is silly; no PPA; always on duty; no time to get anything done. 13 hour days most days.

So I’m starting a new job after Xmas; hoping to get some balance back…

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A colleague of mine was employed at my school last year as a head of department. They struggled quite a bit under the boot of SLT, and didn’t do too well in observations. They got 3s and 4s in all of them last year. Their results weren’t great either, so in an attempt to get shot of this teacher, SLT put more and more and more pressure on them until they collapsed in school with stress and were signed off for a month. They came back to find out that someone had been employed in their place while they were absent (only on a ‘temporary’ contract, of course) meaning that they were left with no lessons to teach and fewer responsibilities. SLT tried to cover it up by saying that it was so they didn’t have to work too much too soon, but they also told the this teacher that one of the reasons they didn’t want them to teach was because there had been parental complaints about them during their absence. This teacher suffers from manic depression and has only just mustered the courage to come back in, but now feels as if they are being pushed out the back door. Our school doesn’t have any union reps so this teacher feels pretty helpless. I’ve told them to get in touch with their union and they are considering doing so, but lacks confidence for obvious reasons

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I’ve been on anti-depressants for just over a year. Initial prescription was for depression and anxiety. The school based factors have been:

  1. Working in a Category 4 school is a intensely pressured. There are more negative than positive conversations with leaders and managers which is always making me think: “What have I done wrong this time?”;
  2. Getting a grade 3 lesson observation in Ofsted and Performance Management observation in the same year. I  eventually got a 2 but lesson observations now fill me with huge anxiety;
  3. Not being allowed onto the next point on the pay scale (despite my own yr 11 classes results being better than HoD and fulfilling all performance management targets and then some);
  4. Negative inter-departmental politics;
  5. Constant monitoring of work eg. book trawls, learning walks, planner reviews etc.;
  6. Bullying by a colleague;
  7. Verbal abuse from pupils becoming an everyday occurrence;
  8. A timetable and marking load I can’t actually manage;
  9. Pay freeze, making life more difficult financially.
  10. No work/life balance for entire time I’ve been teaching.

These are the ones I can think of off of the top of my head.

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This involves colleagues and not me.

Within my department one member has relinquished their TLR after just 4 months due to stress, another member of staff has relinquished their pastoral role after nearly suffering a complete breakdown and our department has experienced record sickness this year.

These incidents involving stress have historic origins. There has been a relentless request to achieve an outstanding Ofsted. Over the past 2 years, in the build up to Ofsted, a number of senior members of staff were ‘eased out’ whilst a team of AST were brought in. This was done in a number of ways and not all were pleasant. In our department it was decided by SLT that we needed a new HoD despite years of continued improvement and leading the college in results. Three new members of staff were hired and within weeks were engaged in weekly meeting with SLT to feedback on the department and HoD. The HoD was placed on competency after a few weeks, and remained in this category for a further month until they were able to prove that the claims against them were spurious at best.

Shortly after this, an ‘Oftsed consultant’ was brought in and the entire school was rated a 4. They pointed to data and claimed that our department was a 3 and could only ever be a 3. My HoD was not permitted to see the data they were using. The consultant was brought in to review the department and rated the HoD a 3, no advice on how to improve was given. When Ofsted eventually arrived later in the year they selected our department as the best performing in the school and the reason why the school scored a 2 overall (our dept was a 1 according to data). By this time my HOD had agreed to leave. All new members of staff joining the department this year had been told in advance that we were a falling faculty (even after Ofsted had named us in their report as the best in the school and the reason for its success).

More than one member of the AST team left with no jobs lined up because of the stress of working in a college with very few systems and a culture of fear. This year the same culture of fear exists but this time the focus is on another department. The same consultant has been brought in to ‘help’ that department. Within the last two weeks the newly appointed HoD was found collapsed in their office on the day the ‘consultant’ was due in. Everyone in that department is well aware of what fate awaits the HoD, the previous HoD was eased out last year.

I would say the biggest cause of stress is pressure to chase results and a complete lack of systems from SLT. There is now the expectation that we should offer twilight intervention and eventually weekend intervention.

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I have been a secondary teacher for 20 years.  Normally I get along with work, teach my lessons pretty well in my usual manner of avuncular-yet-purposeful, but in 2013 the continual pressures and the dictats handed down by Gove (eroding my pay; adding more to my workload and making me pay more for my pension) plus the general day-to-day led me to have doubts about my performance.

In February 2013 I suffered a bout of flu – not manflu, the full-blown feel crappy stuff. While I was feeling run-down I made the foolish move of thinking about things – and then I imploded.  I hated the thought of going back into the classroom, wanted to sit at home looking at four walls and didn’t interact much with anyone.  I never went back to my school.

I was lucky that my local authority occupational health department and my headteacher were supportive and knew that I needed time to get my head straight and decide what my next move was.  I was on antidepressants and sundry other medication for my blood pressure.  I came mighty close to leaving the profession, thinking that anything that earned any kind of money, even being a milkman (then I realised there are very few of those left) was better than being in the classroom.

And so in September I was unemployed, living on £73 per week as opposed to £36k pa – this has not helped my financial situation, but I came to the realisation that that was not important. What was important was my happiness, me being able to face the world again. In late October I got a supply gig – to be honest I was dreading it but it was wonderful to be back in the classroom, and luckily felt as if I had never left.  In a week’s time I will be unemployed again just before Christmas, but there are more important things in life than money.

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I’ve been in teaching for nearly 10 years now. As a Maths teacher I’ve seen sweeping changes in curriculum, standards, accountability and scrutiny (i.e. increased forms of the latter two). Becoming a head of department should have been a proud step up, finally having chance to shape my department and make a real difference in the way the subject is taught in my school.

8 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, however one of the noticeable facets of my condition at the time that teaching was a release for me – I was good at it, I enjoyed it and I got great rewards from it. Basically, it held me together whilst the rest of my life was collapsing around me. It’s amazing that I look back at those times in my career with pride, because these days, all the love and life in my job has been sucked out.

I don’t shape my curriculum, it’s dictated by the government. I’m not allowed to be creative with my team or in lessons, because I have to deliver results – by teaching to the exam, in other words. I can’t continue with my policy of ‘happy people = great workers’ because one or two ‘requires improvement’ lessons from my staff are followed up by ‘support plans’ (informal capability) by SLT. My lessons – well planned, full of content and context – are destroyed because students demand entertainment rather than learning – a result of school policy that lessons should be ‘fun’. Oh and to top it off every other word spoken by SLT is OFSTED.

My integrity, authenticity and hope are questioned every day. It is no longer the world outside of my job that is the source of my depression, it IS my job that is the source. And after all of this, stress is a given. I’m fatter, balder and greyer than I’ve ever been.

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There is a whole story behind my absence including, workplace bullying, disability discrimination, a line manager breaking union rules, unrealistic timescales and workloads and  lack of autonomy that has triggered a change in my mental health condition.

I’ve worked with mental health issues all my life and the workplace  can make or break it. This time it’s broken it. I’m trying to repair it, but I’ve been off for a significant amount of time with no end in sight.

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I left the teaching profession in August 2011. I had been off sick with stress at first since the Easter holidays, which then very quickly became a crippling bout of depression. Ultimately, I decided not to go back in to teaching at all. The turn around in my mental health when I had eventually made the decision in August to never return to that particular school was remarkable. When I decided not to risk my health any further by not teaching at all, I made a full recovery within 3 months.

This all came about from a redundancy at a school that I loved in Aug 2010. I was head of department at a good school, delivering outstanding lessons and achieving 80% pass rates at KS4, and somehow the head had decided that it was to become a part time post. Mainly because everyone else in my department was a head of year and they couldn’t possibly do their jobs part time. I was devastated. And not even able to receive remuneration for it because I was offered the part time post. I was forced to find another full time job.

I interviewed for a post in the next local authority and got it. It wouldn’t have been my first choice and I knew the school wasn’t good (it was in my home town). The department was in disarray and all 5 teachers in it were judged to be delivering lessons of a grade 3 and 4. I knew I had my work cut out.

When I started in the September I was then told that I would have a consultant working ‘with me’. A man of considerable expertise who asked me to deliver on paperwork on a weekly basis to prove I was moving the department forward. Which is fine. But, I was also having to set up BTEC courses, train staff in delivery and set up the bureaucratic nightmare that is managing such a qualification. While also dealing with 6 timetabled groups for 3 teaching spaces; behaviour management difficulties of my staff – who seemed to have no idea of how to inspire children to learn and instead barked orders (a trait across the school that was largely ignored by SLT); assessing and improving T and L; and doing all the normal things that you expect as HoD – SEF, Action plans, monitoring data and working on strategies, implementing the new curriculum etc.

My work-life balance was non existent. I expected this though and was prepared to put in the man hours to get it right. But I wanted to take my team forward with me. I was directed by the head to tell 2 members of my staff that I thought they were incompetent. They weren’t, they just needed support. I was told by my consultant that he’d been asked by the head to get rid of deadwood from the department by grading them as a 4 in lesson observations. I approached the head and was told it was going to happen anyway. He then, 2 weeks later, announced a restructuring and that there would be redundancies in our department, as well as others. Whatever good will I had from my team quickly became every man for himself. But we carried on and did our best and managed to still congregate in the pub at 5 on a Friday for a while.

I was then told my line manager was changing because the previous VP had gone in the first wave of redundancies at Christmas. I wasn’t too dissatisfied as he was more of an old school visionary when it came to my subject. However, the first thing the new executive principal said to me in our first meeting was that she didn’t think that I knew what I was doing and didn’t like what I was doing. I asked her to explain. She didn’t. But told me to re-do my SEF and action plan over the weekend. I was extremely stressed by this particularly since my consultant hadn’t a problem with either. I, nevertheless. did it and emailed it over having barely slept or eaten all weekend. During our next meeting she said she hadn’t had time to read it but wanted to talk about levels at KS3. We had a discussion, I talked about progress being made or not made by certain groups with her being fully aware of standards of teaching or teaching space issues being a problem. I asked for guidance on this, what did she think would help to improve things faster than was happening now, as 3 of my staff were on support plans to improve their teaching. She told me I had to give up my free lessons to teach those groups and where possible, team teach (double up my groups). I said I didn’t think that would be manageable. I was instructed to do it. Another meeting came and went with more criticism, now of my own teaching which was now suffering as a result of the extra workload.

Easter arrived and I sat at home for the two weeks marking and verifying hundreds of BTEC folders (every child in KS4 did the course). For 4 days I went in to school to do revision sessions for the GCSE groups. And then did the usual planning. My soul very close to destroyed at this point. No energy and no enjoyment to be had. I had repeatedly had my professionalism questioned and in short, had been told I was useless. My job was no longer about standing in front of children and enjoying the experience of teaching and learning. And I was bloody good at it! I was outstanding! In two terms that had been annihilated.

The first day back came, I felt sick at the thought of going in. By this point I was barely sleeping at night and had become quite withdrawn around friends and family, but I didn’t notice it. As I checked my email, I had one from the head telling me he would be observing me second lesson that day. This was the final straw. The one that broke the camel’s back so to speak. It wasn’t that I thought that I couldn’t teach the group well. I just could not bare the thought of him telling me anything that would be any way critical afterwards. My fragile self-esteem just would not take it. I did what I never did usually. I burst in to tears. And I sobbed for an hour. I got myself together to teach and shakily made my way through the day. At 4pm, I loaded all of my personal belongings in to my car and walked away.

For months, I was a wreck. I cried. I slept odd hours. I drowned in self-pity. Desperate to try and figure out where it all went wrong. I doubted myself in every aspect of my life. I could no longer even face being around some of my closest friends. Because all I was in life, in my head, was a teacher. And I was no longer that, not one I could be proud of anyway. So I was nothing. And I had been made to feel like that by someone else.

It took some serious counselling and self-reflection to have the guts to walk away from it all. But it is undoubtedly the best decision I ever made. I have a life back, a great job and I’m back to being me.

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It started with an assault. It was quite a bad one, bruising and feeling rather shaken. The pupil had a history of aggressive behaviour and the rest. I reported it, as well as to the police. That was the start. The whole SMT machinery turned on me. I was given a dressing down and from that point on it all started to go wrong. I had been teaching for over 7 years, I think. No NQT, I was an ex-serviceman, confident and assertive. From the day the SMT betrayed my trust all of that evaporated. I became withdrawn and apathetic. I removed all the personal touches in my room.

More assaults followed. Once pupils sense you have been “breached” they home in. A pupil grabbed my wrist to prevent me from closing down a PC in an IT lesson. I raised my voice and the response was instant: “You shouldn’t have touched me!” she screamed. I knew I would get no back up from SMT. I was right. I reported it and had to fight to get the pupil removed. The poor behaviour which was the usual in the school became utterly unmanageable. The Headteacher had stated in no uncertain terms that I should seek employment elsewhere. There was no backup, the ambitious year 11 Head of Year eager to avoid exclusions to feather his own nest. I fell further, becoming more and more stressed. More issues followed, culminating in a hostile observation which triggered my visit to the doctors (on the advice of an assistant head teacher). From the start of the new September year I felt like I was living in a glass box. I was unable to interact with my young children. I would just sit on the sofa, usually covered in a blanket. I was so cold. In the mornings I was sick, I used to cycle into school, or run. That stopped. I drove to work and as soon as I could I left. Ironically I still had an excellent attendance record. My results were still very high (over 90%). I was dead on the inside.

A few days after the hostile observation, after the headteacher personally giving me feedback but just before the follow up observation I arranged to clear my reputation, I went to doctors. I broke down and cried. I cried, I sobbed, I felt ashamed and weak. I felt defeated, used and betrayed. It felt like the end.

I wasn’t. The Local Authority went through the motions. Their occupational therapist found that I was not depressed; my doctor disagreed. I was diagnosed with workplace stress. I never returned to secondary teaching. Over a year on I am now retraining into a better career – the law. I feel much better, more relaxed, happier, freer.

I still harbour immense resentment for those that call themselves “SMT”. They ignored all the warning signs that were evident as to my condition. They chose to punish than support. I am sure I am not alone in finding this.

My advice to those thinking of teaching – don’t. It’s not worth your sanity. If you thought I was alone in the school I was not. I was the third staff member in less than 3 years to leave through stress. A head of department for one of the core subjects was even keeping a log of workload, instructions from SMT and such to cover themselves if they were “strung out”. Not a nice career, not nice people. I fear for my children’s future with such unfeeling careerist monsters in charge for schools.

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If anyone reading this is experiencing stress and depression themselves, you should be aware of the Teacher Support Network which runs a hotline and offers practical advice. If it is your working conditions that are making you ill, or if you want help with ensuring that you are supported at work having being diagnosed with stress or depression, I would recommend contacting your union.

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