My most recent post was about the trolling of educational traditionalists on social media and I will probably return to this topic, if only to discuss the various excuses given for it.
However, a few responses raised the possibility that traditionalists are trolling by commenting on the primary sector. This is not a new line of attack. I have long since learnt that primary teachers on Twitter (or very often those who claim to be on their side but aren’t actually working in the classroom) are one of the more sensitive groups on Twitter, perhaps only rivaled by enthusiasts for education technology at the art of taking offence. Massive conflicts have arisen over play-based learning, phonics, picture books, outcomes in year 6, KS2 test reliability and lying to kids, that all start from the position that for secondary teachers to question practices or beliefs in primary is a personal insult to those in the primary sector, even if there appears to be some diversity of opinion within the sector and plenty of primary teachers telling secondary teachers what to do. So much so that I had in the past mocked this tendency with this tweet:
It had got so out of hand lately, that I thought I’d try to look into whether attitudes really are different. So I set up this Twitter poll:
This seems like a lot of votes for a Twitter poll, but obviously we can assume that it is representative only of teachers on education Twitter who saw it and were motivated enough to vote, rather than primary or secondary teachers in general (although that would make an interesting bit of research). I think it is probably a fair indicator of the attitudes of the teachers I encounter on Twitter, if not any larger group. And it does seem to show a really remarkable difference, with a sizeable majority of the secondary teachers thinking standards need to improve in secondary, and an even bigger majority of primary teachers thinking standards don’t need to improve in primary schools.
Explaining this result is trickier. Perhaps standards are already much higher in primary. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall OFSTED have tended to grade primary schools higher than secondary, although the issues over the accuracy of their inspections and the nature of inspectors’ preferences have been well documented. I also seem to remember there is some international evidence that students in England keep up with students in other countries at primary level and fall behind at secondary, however, I suspect this may reflect an earlier school starting age here which might well result in a head start, the effects of which gradually diminish over time. If anyone can provide a summary of the evidence on either point, I’d be very grateful. An alternative explanation might be that primary teachers are more likely to see the system as being them whereas secondary teachers are more likely to see the system as something that gets in the way. Alternatively, perhaps secondary teachers are more loyal to their subject than their sector (although in my experience secondary teachers on social media are as likely to be as critical of practices in their subject area as they are of any other aspect of the secondary sector).
But perhaps the more important point is not why this is the case, but what it means for debate. If most secondary school teachers I am reaching are thinking that things need to improve in their sector, then it could well mean that they will be more receptive to criticism of the system, more willing to believe things could be better, more inclined to accept change and more willing to acknowledge the need for accountability (whether that’s through results or inspection). Meanwhile the primary teachers I reach might be less receptive to criticism of the system, less willing to believe proposals for improvement will work, more hostile to change and less willing to concede the need for accountability. In the case of ill-thought-out, faddish changes, this might give primary teachers the advantage. In the case of sensible suggestions to raise standards, or debate about what could be done better, it might be a disadvantage for them. In the case of getting anyone to acknowledge things that have gone badly wrong in primary, this might be a real problem. No wonder, it is often a struggle to get primary teachers to acknowledge, say, secondary teachers’ concerns about the weaknesses of year 7 students or misconceptions that have been taught by non-subject specialists at primary that then have to be rectified at secondary. Ironically the response from primary teachers is often to challenge what happens at Key Stage 3, perhaps unaware that secondary teachers themselves are not the biggest fans of what happens at Key Stage 3 themselves.
And, of course, this also leaves speculation as to whether these attitudes are representative of more than just those I reach on Twitter. If attitudes differ beyond this corner of Twitter, then there might be a message for politicians, civil servants, policy experts and trade unions. Perhaps reforming primary will always be a battle, whereas reforms of secondary will find tend to some support in the profession. Perhaps the sectors do need to be treated very differently. Perhaps primary teachers are more likely to accept new ideas if they are presented as something completely new, that nobody could have expected to have already been doing, and secondary teachers are more likely to accept ideas that include a critique of what is already happening.
I’d like to hear your analysis of what I found, although if it consists of claims that I am attacking primary teachers then I will take it as evidence that my analysis was about right.