Teachers on the Edge

September 6, 2020

Making the frontline the centre of the education system

The biggest difference in education is made by those at the frontline: the teachers (including school leaders), lecturers and support staff. They know who they are serving; they have a responsibility to their learners. They can also see more directly what is working and what isn’t. At every other level, and unfortunately sometimes in school leadership, there is a distance between the decisions made and their results in actual classrooms.

At other levels, the education system is its own worst enemy. This is not a whine about the political leadership of education: the politicians, the policy makers and the civil servants. For good or ill, their careers usually cover far more than just education, changing portfolios and moving departments as they progress. Whatever faults they bring to the system they usually take them with them when they go. What I am referring to is the way that parts of the education system itself seem to be perpetually focused on something other than education.

It’s a given that those responsible for tens of thousands of schools and other educational institutions, are not trying to shape every single classroom. Whether they do their job well or not, it’s clear that their responsibility is to serve the interests of the public as a whole. It’s also clear that they can consult frontline staff if they wish to, and it’s not obvious that they have any particular reason not to. What concerns me, are those parts of the system which seem to have a vested interest in keeping frontline staff out of sight and out of influence. There are parts of the system that tell frontline staff what to do, but do not have to do those frontline jobs themselves and often haven’t done them for years and often look very uncomfortable if those at the frontline have any say in the matter.

In ITT, education departments in universities overwhelmingly expect those training teachers to teach to be full time academics and not to be teaching in schools. As a result, ITT staff are often concerned only with the political and pedagogical orthodoxies of educationalists, not what works in schools. They have no ‘skin in the game’. On issues such as mixed ability teaching and use of exclusion and discipline in schools, university education lecturers typically appear to have attitudes that are militant, extreme and entirely out of touch with teachers. While they would claim their positions are more evidence-informed than those of teachers, there are also some issues such as phonics where it is noticeable how often educationalists stand against the evidence.

Frontline staff are not encouraged to have much say over their own professional development. CPD budgets are spent by schools and colleges, not by the individual professionals. While it is only appropriate for schools and colleges to provide some proportion of CPD, after all schools need to train their staff in the school specific systems and expectations, this has left education workers unable to set their own priorities. As a result, a voluntary “shadow” system of CPD has developed that teachers take part in during their own time and often pay for out of their own pockets. After school teach meets, BrewED events in pubs, and huge researchED conferences at weekends rely on speakers (often frontline staff themselves) speaking for free and teachers attending in their own time. Sometimes school staff can ask their schools to pay for tickets or travel (although I suspect most don’t), but attendance is on top of the time already spent on days of employer-directed CPD.

A considerable downside to too much employer-directed, and too little self-directed CPD, is that a market for a particular type of consultant has been created. Rather than concentrating on improving the effectiveness of frontline staff, these consultants concentrate on appealing to managers. Teachers find they are given training on how to help the school pass inspections and how to ensure that their response to bad behaviour doesn’t create work for those in charge, rather than being trained on how to teach or manage behaviour more effectively. They may even be employed simply to fill a gap in the schedule for an INSET day, or to give a motivational talk, rather than to provide meaningful professional development. This type of consultant then becomes another vested interest within the system, arguing against effective teaching methods and whole school behaviour systems.

And once you have consultants and educationalists earning a living without providing a benefit to frontline staff, they take an interest in capturing resources intended to serve the frontline. The marginalisation of the frontline is perhaps best illustrated by the way that, in recent years, new institutions have promised to change the balance of power only to replicate what already existed. Two recent examples of institutions funded by the DfE being created to serve the frontline and being captured by interests other than the frontline are:

The Education Endowment Fund. This was apparently intended to move control over education research from the ideologically motivated individuals in education academia. Michael Gove claimed it would “provide additional money for those teachers who develop innovative approaches to tackling disadvantage” and “it is teachers who are bidding for its support and establishing a new research base to inform education policy” [my emphasis]. In practice, it’s chief executive is an educationalist who has been involved in writing papers on how setting children into ability groups is “symbolic violence” based on the theories of Bourdieu. The EEF is now a law unto itself in the agendas it promotes. It recently squandered funds for research into the effectiveness of setting and mixed ability by failing to compare them directly and continues to share older research of doubtful provenance instead. And nobody can work out who, other than the opponents of phonics, wanted the EEF to spend money on the latest iteration of Reading Recovery.

The Chartered College of Teaching. This was created by government policy (and government funding) to be an independent teacher led professional body, “run by teachers, for teachers”. In practice, it is run largely by ex-teachers who already have or had positions of power in education; it is funded by employers, and it is now only too happy to campaign against government policy, even taking its lead from the trade unions. It now holds events in the day time when most teachers can’t leave school, promotes educational fads and censors teachers who dare question educationalists.

Another issue is how difficult it is for frontline staff to express opinions. Teachers have been reported to their employers for expressing opinions on social media. Those training to teach have been reported to their training institutions. Without being able to divulge the details of specific cases it’s hard to prove the trivial nature of such instances. But it doesn’t take long on teacher twitter to discover that whereas consultants and educationalists can heap online abuse on anyone they like, teachers find there are professional consequences for even disagreeing with fashionable opinions and very often those making the complaints are the same consultants and educationalists who have complete freedom of speech themselves.

Finally, the education system promotes and protects the beliefs and interests of those who make the job at the frontline more difficult. Some of this, like the consultants described earlier, appears to be about self-interest. We have organisations that provide training to schools campaigning for the government to ban internal exclusions, suspensions and expulsion, thus creating behaviour problems which require more training for staff. We have organisations that provide mental health services and advice to schools, running public campaigns claiming there is a youth mental health crisis that requires schools to spend more money on mental health services and advice.

To be charitable, it’s not all self-interest, sometimes it’s ideological. When the newly appointed head of Goldsmiths Education department indicates that her department’s programmes focus on “inclusion and social justice in educational settings”, she is no doubt sincere, but it is far from clear why money from the education budget should fund an organisation with such openly political priorities. Similarly, when The Children’s Commissioner joins an online campaign that demonises schools, she is no doubt sincere in her belief that the campaigners are right that schools are cruel and internal exclusion is unnecessary. But it’s far from clear why the government should be funding ideologically motivated attacks on things that are perfectly normal in schools.

Here are my suggestions for changing the system to empower the frontline.

  1. Remove all ITT from university education departments. No teacher needs to be trained by experts in Marxist sociology and critical theory. Remove funds from any organisation, such as the EEF, that is giving power and influence to educationalists to promote their pet theories of learning.
  2. Reduce the number of CPD days controlled by schools, and allow teachers to choose their own CPD for part of that allocation and encourage schools to make this as convenient as possible. Make it harder to make a living providing CPD that teachers don’t want, and easier to make a living providing CPD that teachers would choose for themselves.
  3. Create incentives for those providing teacher training or employer-directed CPD to also teach, whether that’s in the structures or in financial incentives. All parts of the system should be encouraged to audit the extent to which those that shape its policies are currently working at the frontline of education. It would be fascinating to know what proportion of people invited into the DfE to give advice on the education system have worked in a school or college in any capacity other than consultancy in the previous week.
  4. Give teachers a right to freedom of speech. While teachers should not be able to say anything they like about their employers or their students, it is not up to schools to regulate opinions on pedagogy or politics expressed on social media by teachers who are not representing their employer and sometimes not even writing under their own name.
  5. Require every organisation that receives funds directly from the DfE, or indirectly from educational institutions, to refrain from taking part in, or funding anything close to political activism. Abolish completely any institution, such as the Office Of The Children’s Commissioner that seems to have been set up almost entirely to push an ideological agenda.


  1. A very accurate account

  2. […] Teachers on the Edge […]

  3. […] Teachers on the Edge […]

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