What would do most to improve the status of the teaching profession?

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I have blogged before about the limited public image of the teaching profession. About how, despite polling as the second-most-trusted profession on the UK in February 2013, the profession lacks the social status of medicine, science, and the law. Why is this? And what can we do about it?New College Oxford

In November 2012, I was invited back to my Oxford college to speak at a careers day. Alumni of the college from many different employment sectors were there to speak to undergraduates about career options, training routes, and postgraduate opportunities in their respective professions. There were accountants, arts administrators, broadcasters, civil servants, journalists, lawyers, management consultants, medical professionals, manufacturers, musicians, priests, researchers and teachers, amongst many others (including a circus manager). The first session – where the alumni were put together by the degrees they had studied with undergraduates currently on the same courses – showed the diversity of opportunities available to these young people. In the second session the alumni were grouped by their employment sectors in the Hall and waited for undergraduates interested in their sector to visit them to ask questions. I sat with the four other teachers – three state, two independent – to wait. The accountancy, law and management consultancy tables were busy. The priest had an earnest conversation with one undergraduate for about half an hour. The broadcasters and journalists had several visitors. We saw nobody. Not a single undergraduate from my Oxford college came to ask about teaching.

How, then, can we improve the status of teaching so that it becomes as attractive and viable to the high-achieving undergraduates at top universities as those other professions? Is it about pay? I don’t think so – as a teacher I’ve always earned enough to be comfortable and PRP is I think an invidious and unhelpful solution to a non-problem. Is it about career progression? Again, I don’t think so. There are clear and varied progression routes in teaching just as in medicine and law. Is it about entry routes? There may be something here. My PGCE was a necessary step but was a year extra without being in paid work. School Direct, GTP, Teach First and the raft of SCITT approaches go some way to addressing this, although I would still argue it is harder for someone to switch professions into teaching than some other sectors.

Or is it about public perception? The truth of public opinions of teachers, shown in the IPSOS-MORI poll above, is that they are held in very high regard. But the rhetoric in the press tells a very different story.

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I agree with Cherrylkd that our teaching unions do little to help in the circus of unreasonable extremism masquerading as conference season. Even the NAHT fell victim to this at their recent AGM, heckling and jeering at Michael Gove despite Bernadette Hunter’s attempts to pass this off as expressions of “exasperation and indignation“. What the unions don’t seem to realise is that Michael Gove wants them to go hard-line. The strikes and jeering will play into his hands as his response to the NAHT conference in the Times, his letter to schools branding the NUT/NASUWT pay policy “illegal”, and his “blob” accusations show. I can’t help feeling he views PRP as a a tool to break the unions; his Thatcher moment. He relishes the thought of their ineffective action and the negative spin he will easily be able to put on the strikes to come, confirming the “enemies of promise” narrative he has already set in motion. It will make it easy for him to brand any arguments coming from the left in education as guilty by association.

It is of course horrendous that the Secretary of State for Education and Chief Inspector of Schools between them are leading lights in undermining and denigrating the profession in their public statements. “Stop moaning” says Wilshaw. “Low expectations” says Gove. What’s even worse is that their criticisms may be true of some members of our profession, and that the unions seem to confirm the narrative in their obstreperous resistance to and blanket rejection of any kind of progress or change, even when it might actually be a good thing (progress measure based on the best 8, for example).

The vast majority of teachers, I believe, share Ross McGill’s view:

However, RedorGreenPen has written brilliantly about how easy it is for a teacher with the highest expectations (and redorgreenpen is clearly one of those) to have those expectations eroded with weak leadership and a lack of support systems. And this is where I believe the solutions begin – with school leadership. If the profession is to live up to the trust that the public places in us and defy the “enemies of promise” label so readily bandied around by those in charge at policy level, school leaders must do all we can to empower teachers to maintain the high standards they aspire to for the young people in our charge. We should avoid the traps of defective school leadership laid out by Joe Kirby in “What makes great school leadership?” and fulfil the seven positives:

  1. Entrench the ethos
  2. Avoid fads
  3. Walk the talk
  4. Ban excuses
  5. Focus on teaching
  6. Ensure consistency
  7. Build trust

We should heed the words of Rob Carter in “What would you say?“, Stephen Tierney in “Advice to new senior leaders“, Kev Bartle in “Ten Commandments for School Leaders” and Peter Smith in “7 things successful heads of department do“. Above all we should behave professionally and responsibly, engaging with problems and tackling change constructively, rationally and calmly. We wouldn’t want our teachers jeering and heckling us in staff meetings, we wouldn’t want our students behaving like that in lessons. Although that is the dominant mode in parliament, we can set a better example.

This post is a response to the May #blogsync topic hosted at Edutronic.

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Limited public image

The public trusts teachers. Honestly – they do. Look, here’s the proof, from the Ipsos MORI Trust Poll in February 2013:

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The public place more trust in teachers than in TV newsreaders and judges. 86% of British adults trust teachers to tell the truth, whereas only 18% would trust a politician to do so. On the balance of probabilities, then, it’s clearly quite likely that Michael Gove is spinning a line when he describes us as “Enemies of Promise” or “The Blob”, or when he argues that we should work for longer each day and with less holiday, or when Sir Michael Wilshaw says we don’t know the meaning of the word “stress”. Yet the damage done to the morale of the profession by these attacks – what Polly Toynbee calls “teacher bashing” – is immense.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the profession itself contributes to the erosion of our public image with utterly impractical union conference motions passed – teaching should be capped at 20 hours a week, for example. Little wonder that even within the NUT a group has sprung up to decry the hard-left headline grabbers. Ian Grayson, a member of the NUT national executive, said:

“The vast majority of NUT members are well-educated, reasonable people who just don’t feel the same way as the extreme left who take the podium. Industrial action has a place, but we oppose calls for perpetual industrial action. We would tend towards a programme of constructive dialogue instead.”

Unsurprisingly, Grayson’s stance didn’t get a lot of media coverage. Instead, Gove went on the offensive with his attack on The Blob and implication that we’re workshy chancers who should work for longer, despite the international evidence that more contact time does not improve educational outcomes.  He is pressing on with the introduction of a performance related pay system which all the evidence is against to tackle the problem of a failing education system which isn’t, if you look at the evidence, actually failing.

So how can we tackle this erosion of our wonderful profession?  What can we possibly do? Go on strike? A strike will surely play into the hands of an education secretary spoiling for a fight. It makes it easy for him to brand teachers “enemies of promise” and accuse them of not caring about the kids and their hard working families. Taking him on anywhere but at the ballot box is not going to help.

Instead we need to build on the “programme of constructive dialogue” that has begun. Groups like the Heads Roundtable have shown that it is far more productive to offer a rational, evidenced alternative solution to what is offered than to stand shouting “No! We don’t like it! Stop! We have no confidence in you!”. Debra Kidd, whose brilliant performance on Channel 4 news represented the profession so well, has written a persuasive call to get behind Mick Waters’ education spring. And Michael Gove himself has given schools and teachers the freedom to set our own pay and conditions, to design and implement our own curricula, and to run schools the way we think they should be run. This is how our profession can succeed. We have more power than perhaps we realise.

If we teach well and set the agenda in our own schools, our great profession can be impervious to the attacks and accusations that are thrown at us. The trust that is placed in us to cherish, nurture and teach the most precious asset that any person will ever have – their children – will only be repaid if we continue to do that job brilliantly and with the kind of dedication that is the daily norm for the vast majority of teachers. It isn’t easy, and it’s likely to get tougher and tougher as economic, social and political conditions challenge us. But teachers are equal to it if we keep our attention firmly on what matters – the young people entrusted to us. Because if we do what we do, and do it well, we will be unassailable.

Industrial Action

At the time of writing, the NUT and NASUWT are involved in industrial action short of strike action. The aim of this action is “Protecting Teachers”. Michael Gove has issued guidance to schools intimating that this action constitutes a breach of contract and that any teachers taking action should have their pay docked.

I believe that the unions are right to try to protect teachers from the myriad threats that currently face us. The EBacc, changes to pay, changes to pensions, free schools, forced academisation, phonics and grammar tests, the GCSE fiasco…we are an embattled profession, and we need defending, as the YouGov survey commissioned by the NUT demonstrated to good effect.

However, I have grave concerns over the action currently being taken.

Firstly, I am not sure what it is trying to achieve. There is no “we will stop this action when…” statement attached to it, no concrete objective. I’m not sure exactly what it’s for.

Secondly, it has no impact on the Secretary of State. The action makes schools more difficult to run and thus, potentially, creates conflicts and divisions between school leaders and staff at exactly the time when we should be most united against common threats.

Thirdly, it is not a union action. The point of a union is to act together. Yet staff nationwide appear to be choosing individually whether or not to abide by the action, which elements of the action they are following and which not. Far from demonstrating the sharp unity of the teaching profession against the overwhelming challenges we are facing, this action is showing the profession to be divided and blunted. Michael Gove is not blind to this – at the start of the guidance to schools he says: “in the great majority of schools, the industrial action is not having an impact because teachers are instead focusing entirely on providing the best possible education for their pupils.”

I agree with Michael Gove. There, I’ve said it. Professionals are being forced to choose between their professionalism and acting as a union – and the majority of the best, most principled, and most professional teachers are choosing to do their job well and provide the best standard of education for the students in their care. Unfortunately, this means not abiding by elements of the union action, thus shattering the concept of acting as a union.

I know that what Gove has said is political spin. But the unions are not exactly making it difficult for him to spin them as “enemies of promise”. They seem like lumbering dinosaurs wandering clumsily into a trap set by the agile politicians – easy prey for a Secretary of State as nimble and astute as Gove is. My fear is that when the unions eventually call for more meaningful action, they will find their members so used to not taking action that it will fall flat on its face…

Little wonder that the profession is turning to new groups like The Heads Roundtable to campaign over EBacc, to Geoff Barton and the legal coalition to campaign over the GCSE fiasco, and to ASCL to provide a voice of reason in negotiation with the Government. For as a profession we should be united, but it is not the teaching unions which unite us.