How do we get better teachers?

Fiona Millar's picture
How do we get better teachers? That seems to be the question at the moment. The BBC news headlines last night reported Ofsted saying that a half of all schools failed to give students a good education. But that isn’t quite what the report said. It pointed out that although a majority of schools were good or better, within them and across all other schools, there was still too much dull and inspiring teaching.

But this raises several interesting questions, not least what do we mean by a good education? Dull and uninspiring teaching, that drills pupils to pass tests and exams  can still produce good enough results,  which is the benchmark by which most of us are asked to judge schools. This is especially true in schools that have favourable intakes and is probably why we have ‘good’ schools with some dull teachers – some of which are in the independent sector by the way.

And there are many inspirational teachers in schools with very challenging intakes, often in selective areas where the most able students have been creamed off by other schools. These schools are represented disproportionately in the group that fails to meet the floor targets set by central government. Are they good or bad schools, offering a good or bad education?

Michael Gove did have the grace to admit this morning on the Today programme that teaching has improved in this country over the last 13 years. Having been a parent and governor in that time I would agree with that.

The real question is how do we step up the pace of that improvement, make teaching overall more inspiring and also weed out persistent under performers. Here I am less certain that the reforms he proposes will work. A fundamental re-think of the leagues tables must surely be necessary to ‘free’ teachers from the inevitable process of exam and test coaching, at which many have got very good, possibly at the expense of following their instincts and feeling confident to experiment more with the curriculum. Do we really need exams at 16 at all if the school leaving age is rising to 18? The GCSE exists for an era when young people finished their education at 16.

But what he really didn’t deal with this morning (and I touched on this in my blog earlier this week about my 18 years as a governor at my local primary school) is who holds the schools to account for their teaching and how?

For that process to work well, you need tough and uncompromising heads (of whom there aren’t enough) who know how to support weak teachers and then act if performance doesn’t improve, and also governors who are prepared, in turn, to hold the head teacher to account and exercise their responsibilities as critical friends to their schools’, asking difficult questions and acting if they don’t get the right answers. How many Chairs of Governors do know the proportion of good satisfactory and inadequate teaching in their schools?

Governors rarely get mentioned in these big national debates about schools. We get a few paragraphs at the end of the White Paper, but still the role for school improvement appears to rest more with local authorities, although as local authority funding is squeezed, and if national funding circumvents the LA, I wonder how engaged local councils will be with schools in 10 year time. Heads AND governors will be in the front line when it comes to ensuring that teaching really does improve and that needs more recognition now.
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