School culture: there is another way

Henry Stewart's picture
It was a long time ago that the key issues in an election, in Tony Blair’s famous words, were “education, education, education”. This time round education did not feature in the leaders’ debate and it is definitely a side issue so far. The Conservatives seek to wow us with the idea of converting 3,500 more schools to be academies and extra tests for 11 year olds. Labour has quietly put forward an important boost to vocational education. But the spending commitment of all three parties so far represents a 10% cut to education funding in terms of real per-pupil spend.

My colleague Fiona MIllar this week provided an excellent summary of the range of alternative education manifestos. These provide a focus on reform to Ofsted and on more collaboration, rather than the Coalition's emphasis on competition. But she also emphasises that "trust in teachers and workload issues have risen up the political agenda".

In June 97 education was seen as the 2nd most important issue by voters, just behind the NHS (even taking 1st place in July 1997, just after the election). In polls in 2015 it ranks sixth, after NHS, immigration, the economy, unemployment and poverty. But there are 450,000 teachers and around one million voters in total that work in schools in England (and, of course, millions of parents of school-age children).

Who will provide a new vision for our schools?

For those staff, and teachers especially, I think Fiona is spot on. The key issues are surely workload and trust. Teachers and headteachers alike feel under continual pressure, with continuous change from central government, fear of Ofsted, and a climate of distrust.

There is an opportunity here. There is a an opportunity for a politician to paint a picture of a very different educational culture. Instead of a focus on structure, this could be a focus on collaboration for the common good; on respect and trust for teachers; on schools as creative places where children enjoy learning; on the potential of wider skills and abilities for young people; on an inspection approach based on peer-appraisal and support; on less paperwork and reporting and a reasonable workload.

There are hints of this in the Labour manifesto, that gives Labour a real opportunity to paint an inspiring picture of a break from the past. I would love to see Tristram Hunt or Ed Miliband get together with some of the headteachers (at the Headteachers Round Table or elsewhere) who are showing how schools can be different, and give an alternative vision that could inspire teachers, school staff and parents.

Could schools be great workplaces?

At the recent conference on happy productive schools, we were given exactly that kind of inspiring picture, from headteachers who were creating schools based on trust. Sir Alasdair MacDonald, ex head of Morpeth School, talked about a focus on supporting and celebrating success, rather than rooting out failure. Tom Sherrington, headteacher of Highbury Grove, talked about moving beyond lesson grading and creating professional dialogue based on respect.

Chris Holmwood, senior deputy headteacher at Shenley Brook End, spoke about "a culture of joy and enthusiasm in the learning of others. A school can be happy and effective, it can be creative and rigorous.” Tim Brighouse talked about moving away from the Ofsted culture of fear and replacing it with an inspection approach based on peer review. For the full article in Schools Week, click here.

Those attending were left feeling there is another way, that schools can be great places to work in. Let's hope that thoughts like these become part of the campaign.




One million voters: The IFS details that there are 450,000 teachers and 240,000 teaching assistants, meaning 690,000 people working in classrooms in England. I would suggest support staff (admin, caretakers, cleaners, dinner ladies etc) would add at least another 300,000. This does not include schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where education policy is decided by the devolved governments.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/04/2015 - 09:46

Whoever becomes the next Education Secretary should meet with the Headteachers' Roundtable and other such grass roots organisations to discuss education.

It's a pity education has slipped down the agenda - it's been overshadowed by budgets, immigration, Europe and the NHS.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 16/04/2015 - 10:52

Henry and Janet - Today's Independent carries an article by Rachael Pells in which she asks various teachers and educators, 'what is behind the mass exodus' of teachers?

This is her list in order, from the second most important.

THE LACK OF FUNDING - from a headteacher
THE OFSTED INSPECTIONS - from a teacher (HoD)
THE MARKING - from a science teacher
THE MICRO-MANAGEMENT - from a headteacher

However top of the list is

THE FOCUS ON EXAM RESULTS - from an experienced 30-year-old English teacher working at an all-girls comprehensive school in central London.

"The main problem is exam results, mostly due to the A*-C measure, which has very little give and means that every child is expected to progress and achieve high standards.

"There is an insane amount of pressure to keep improving and achieve better results year-on-year, but sometimes circumstances are out of your control. The pupils are not robots that can churn out grades. Some people are not going to get a C, but it is a C that is the only measure of success.

"Grade boundaries increase year-on-year and it is a system based around success and failure, with no real alternative for people who are not academic, so they become unhappy. Last year I taught the lowest ability set and it was a two-year charade of telling them they might get a C, as that was the only thing that motivated them. It was a horrible experience operating towards an output, rather than learning for the sake of learning.

"There is so much focus on measuring success on grades and numbers, but very little measurement of children's happiness and of them enjoying learning. I think the Government has got it wrong. Are we building happy, engaged, excited and opinionated people? Or are we building a future generation of wage slaves? We need qualitative rather than quantitative teaching methods. Under the Coalition, it has become all about numbers and evaluating performance, while issues like children not eating, self-harming or experiencing depression are often forgotten."

I could have posted this as a relevant reply to a number of recent threads on LSN, but this one from Henry hits most of the buttons.

Why is it that so many professionals at the sharp end of the English education system agree that it is mad, bad and a threat to pupils and teachers, and yet there is so little recognition from our political leaders even at the height of a General Election campaign?

Apart from the Greens, only the Labour Party addresses this but only then with a tentative, if welcome, toe in the water.

Needless to say, all these issues are examined in, 'Learning Matters', especially the one I have quoted.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 18/04/2015 - 23:07

In Fiona's Guardian article, John Tomsett, Headteachers' Roundtable, made a very telling remark that, for me, sums up the present perilous state of education in our country. Tomsett was speaking about more positive developments in government thinking over the last few years and the impact of the work of the Roundtable on this change for the better. Looking to the post-election period, he had this to say:

“Our hope is that when civil servants and ministers are rooting around for new policy ideas, they will turn to our policy papers and manifestos, having remembered that our policies are grounded in common sense, experience, and that they come from the grassroots, from working headteachers who all still teach.”

Similarly, Henry, I picked up a comment at the end of your piece where you said, in relation to the conference on happy and productive schools - "Let’s hope that thoughts like these become part of the campaign."

The signs are that it is getting very late in the day for the direction of the campaign to reflect the voice of professionals. What is the real political mileage in such a switch of attitude about education in what's left of the election campaign? Which of the 'big two' parties is going to focus more closely on education when the overriding view is that their policies are so similar as to severely reduce any opportunity for points scoring over their opponents?

Has the fate of our education system come down to nothing more significant than "HOPE" that things will change for the better, either before the election or in its aftermath? If all we have is hope that, 'when civil servants and ministers are rooting around for new policy ideas,' they will decide there might be virtue in turning to professionals for advice, God help us!

Where education reform is concerned, our democracy seems broken. It simply cannot be right to even suggest it's good enough for politicians to have such a stranglehold on the national debate about education's future that we accept them rooting around for new policies when so much is at stake.

There is 'another way', Henry. In my view, however, the prevailing political culture has to be changed before school culture has any chance of developing and growing, as many of us want, in a stable environment. Until we have a National Education Commission, responsible for the governance of education, this will not happen.

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