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Thursday, 17 October 2013

Speaking Truth to Power: The need for political reform in our education system

Since Michael Gove “came to power” in 2010, politics has played a much greater role in my working life than I had ever anticipated. Gove’s name is mentioned on an almost daily basis by colleagues fed up with ill-thought through changes and confused about what we are actually supposed to be doing. Soon, a new curriculum will be in place, but we have only the vaguest notions of what it will contain and no way to begin preparing our students. I have already lost count of the times we have had to sit down and re-write lesson plans and schemes of work because the hyperactive Mr Gove has changed his mind about something, or decided that changes need to be brought in NOW, RIGHT THIS MINUTE, NO DELAY!!!

And yet, much as Gove provokes an unprecedented level of ire and exasperation from teachers, he himself is not really the problem.

Yes that’s right.

Gove isn’t the problem.

The system is.

You see, we have a system in which the secretary of state for education has almost unbridled power over our schools. On the 29th of September, mere weeks before our year 11 students were due to take their GCSE maths exam in early November, Gove sent out a tweet (no letter, or email, just a tweet) saying that exam re-sit results would no longer count towards league tables. This edict was effective immediately.

“Bravo!” I hear many people cry. “Teenagers have it easy, they shouldn’t be allowed to re-sit their exams and schools shouldn’t encourage it.” 

The awkward thing is, Gove himself has promised legislation that will mean students HAVE TO re-sit GCSE maths and English if they don’t get a C. So when he labels re-sitting “cheating”, he himself is enshrining cheating in legislation, making it mandatory for a significant proportion of teenagers.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of entering students in for November exams, this particular tweet at the end of September encapsulated the crux of the problem with our education system. The education secretary had an idea, he implemented it immediately, he scored political points for himself, and he generated agonising and immediate problems for hundereds of teachers up and down the country, with potentialy disastrous results for students.  

In our school, we waited a few days, hoping for a U turn, thinking surely, surely he can’t jeopardise our students’ results like this. But with no U turn seeming likely, we called an emergency meeting before school to decide whether or not to pull students out of the exam. We had to balance what was best for the individual students with what was best for the whole school (and the thousand or so other students that attend). We decided to keep most of the students in. They have been working hard since the beginning of September and they wanted to do the exam.  For our part, we wanted to shelter them from the political storm raging above their young heads.

Of course, this debacle should never have happened. We cannot function well in a system where the rules constantly change, where we don’t even know what is on the curriculum, where there is no clear and consistent leadership. We cannot function in a system where things can change at the whim of the Education Secretary. It has to stop.

These are the key changes I feel that we need at a political level:

The secretary of state for education should have no role in deciding the national curriculum. This should be discussed and decided by experts, including teachers, academics and representatives from businesses and employers. No single person should be able to stamp their individual preferences all over the curriculum.

The secretary of state should not be able to announce changes that impact on the current academic year. I do not say this because I am opposed to change; indeed I think it is vital. But if new policies could only be implemented in the next academic year it would give teachers more time to plan, it would make politicians think more carefully about what they are doing, and the resulting changes would be more effective and more successful.

Teachers need a professional body, which should be consulted over every major change. Currently we only have unions. Their job is limited to pay, pensions and working conditions, but I believe that the majority of teachers are more bothered about the negative impact that politicians have on the curriculum. We need a professional body to stand up for teachers and students over issues such as exams and the curriculum.


So there are my proposals. I’m not attacking Gove as an individual, I’m attacking a system that allows him so much power. His “crusade” mentality has caused teachers more problems than any other education secretary in recent years, but it is his position, rather than the man himself, that poses the greatest threat.

I have titled my blog post “speaking truth to power”. I don’t have a lot of power. But I am an intelligent, thoughtful person who cares passionately about the young people she teaches. I hope somebody listens.




I'm on strike today, here's why....

I’m on strike today because I disagree with the government’s ill thought through reforms to pay, conditions and pensions. The issues are complex, and I fully accept the need for some reforms. The population is aging and I agree that we need to change the pensions system. However, many of the proposed changes will have a damaging impact on our education system. As a conscientious teacher, who cares passionately about state education in this country, I have taken the decision to go on strike and voice my opposition.

1. Pensions

Clearly we need some reforms to our pension system. People are living longer and we need a sensible solution. I am hugely concerned however, by the idea of making teachers work in the classroom until they are 68, or even older. I am not for a minute suggesting that older people have nothing to contribute, but you have to be realistic about the physical demands of the job. Can you imagine someone aged nearly 70 trying to teach a group of 32 challenging teenagers? We’re not talking meek and mild children who will do whatever you say.  But maybe you think the 70 year old person could manage it for an hour. Then make that 5 hours a day, with break duties, detention duties, marking, planning, meetings, phonecalls home..... It is just ridiculous.  It won’t be fair on the teachers and it won’t be fair on the students.

2. Working Conditions

The government have said that they want to see longer school days and shorter holidays. A populist and ill thought through policy.

Many teachers will have come across people who are keen to tell us that the school holidays are too long and the school day too short. The reality however, is that time spent actually teaching classes represents perhaps a third of a teacher’s total workload. People outside the profession can easily (and understandably) underestimate the amount of time planning and marking take. So here is a rough example to give everyone some context: I teach over 200 hundred students. If I spent 5 minutes per week marking each book, that would take over 16 hours and if I spent just 20 minutes planning each lesson (I often spend longer) this would take over 6 hours. That’s an extra 22 hours a week, or 4 and a half hours  per working day. I usually finish teaching/attending meetings at 4.30pm. Add the extra 4 and a half hours and my day finishes at 9pm. This is just a rough example, but bear in mind I haven’t factored in all the extras we do – particularly regarding pastoral work and contacting parents.

In general, the threat to teachers’ working conditions is a threat to the quality of students’ education.  Teachers have a demanding job and if the school day becomes longer, this will result in a drop in quality. We won’t be able to plan, mark and feedback in the same way we do now. It’s just not physically possible.

 3.Performance related pay

On the surface, performance related pay sounds like a great idea -

 “Pay good teachers more!” 

“Reward those who work hard!”

 – it all sounds ideal. Surely the only people who could disagree would be lazy teachers concerned that they’ll miss out?

The reality is, as ever, more subtle than the soundbites above would suggest. In fact, I am far more concerned about the impact it will have on students than the impact it will have on teachers.

Firstly, performance related pay raises the stakes in terms of test results. Teachers are already judged on their test results, but the new system will place far more emphasis on them. This means that the culture of “teaching to the test” will be strengthened, not weakened.

Secondly, it is clear that some schools are more challenging to work in than others. What incentive will teachers have to go and teach in the emotionally draining and physically demanding environment of a difficult school when they know it is harder to reach performance targets in these schools? The result will be that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will not get the best teachers.

Thirdly, performance related pay may have a big impact on the community of teachers, particularly within schools. Teachers work at their best when they collaborate: when they share ideas and resources, when they learn from each other’s experience and when they feed off each other’s enthusiasm. Performance related pay could erode this by generating an atmosphere of competition between individual teachers. Will every teacher be willing to share their best resources with a colleague if they are in direct competition with them? After all, the total sum of money for teachers' pay has not gone up. Performance related pay means that for every teacher who gets paid more, some will get paid less.

Finally, performance related pay could impact negatively on set changes.  In the system, “performance” will be based on comparisons with target grades, which can be very erratic. My current year 11 class has a student with a target of a D, who is clearly capable of an A.  In a subject like maths where students are usually placed in ability groups, teachers may wish to “hang on” to students who are performing above their target grades and stop them from moving up to a higher set. Similarly, they may send underperforming students down to the set below, without taking responsibility for improving that child’s grade themselves.

I'd like to finish by saying that teachers are, in general, a very reasonable and caring bunch. Patience is a key characteristic of a successful teacher. But we also have integrity, passion and commitment to what we do. If we didn't think it was worth it, we wouldn't have gone on strike.