Calvin Robinson is a teacher in London.
Since I left industry to pursue my vocation in education I’ve been a class teacher, a middle leader, and a member of the senior leadership team for a number of schools around London, and I’ve witnessed the same problems in the majority of them. Most teachers can relate to the common problems facing schools today, and while the Conservative Party has made proficient improvements to the UK’s education system there does at times feel like there’s a considerate disconnect between what goes on in the classroom and the decisions being made in the Department for Education. As a man on the ground, here is my view of what the future of Tory education policy should look like…
Starting with the highest priority, workload. First and foremost we should pledge to make no new changes to the national curriculum for the next parliamentary term. Michael Gove’s more rigorous knowledge-rich curriculum is fantastic, as is Nick Gibb’s synthetic phonics policy, and we’re just now starting to see the pay-off from both. Teachers are getting familiar with the new syllabus, students are starting to reap the rewards, it would be silly to make any changes now and would just create more angst. Better to earn back some trust from the onset.
On that note, we should also be doing everything we can to promote programmes such as Daisy Christodoulou’s No More Marking, which isn’t actually about doing away with marking, but is about marking more effectively by assessing pupils’ work through comparative-judgement. The evidence in support of whole class feedback over marking every piece of work is astonishing and could lighten the workload of so many overburdened class teachers practically instantaneously. There are so many bureaucratic box-ticking exercise like this that could be done away with, regular book looks with counter-productive feedback, individual lesson plans, we need to do our utmost to encourage schools to put an end to box-ticking and empower teachers to be the professionals that they are.
All of this will help with teacher retention, which is another area of concern and clearly related to workload. Here we could do quite well in promoting more ways of keeping the best teachers in the classroom, by opening up more career opportunities and ways to climb the pay scale ladder other than becoming middle management.
On that note, we should most certainly introduce training for middle leaders. Just because someone is fantastic at passing on knowledge to pupils does not mean they make good people managers. This is one of the principal problems with British schools today, and why so many of them can become unpleasant places to work. People are promoted above their level of managerial competence, and that’s not their fault, we’re not offering them sufficient training. It makes the department heads unhappy, in makes those in the department unhappy, and that’s not good for teaching and learning.
After workload and retention, I’d recommend we take a look at recruitment. The DfE has just launched their free recruitment website. This is a brilliant move but needs some heavy promotion to let both school leaders and potential recruits know it’s out there and ready to use. The next step would be to increase starting and unqualified teacher salaries. While teachers can eventually make a decent living, the starting salary is hugely discouraging, particularly if we want to attract more subject experts to enter the field.
We should certainly continue to promote partnerships that encourage career changes into teaching such as Now Teach, Teach First, School Direct etc. One new area of priority though should be to take a look at our current PGCE courses, and judge whether they’re truly fit for purpose. Many are still teaching outdated techniques and debunked theories such as individual learning styles – we should re-address their relevance and focus on evidence-informed practice.
Schools and school leaders need autonomy. It’s high time we trusted professionals to get on with their job, and the Academies programme has been great for both increased autonomy and in cutting bureaucracy. We also need to make it easier for parents and teachers to open Free Schools, especially in areas of deprivation where the community is calling out for good school places. Some of the large MATs are doing an amazing job, but they shouldn’t be allowed to monopolise or overshadow a local community’s drive to open good schools.
As for the curriculum, while I wouldn’t recommend making any changes for the next parliamentary term, there are some improvements we could make around delivery that could ease pressure on schools. Starting with encourage schools to share resources. Year in, year out, teachers are re-inventing the wheel, creating different versions of the same resources to line-up with the curriculum. Successful MATs like Inspiration Trust have already started creating curriculum centres to distribute a uniformly high standard curriculum across their schools and lighten teacher workload, others like Ark have even started selling their resources to other schools. It’d be great to see more of this sharing of best practise. Perhaps this is something that could be tendered out to a charity to setup a national curriculum centre website where schools and teachers can freely share and access high quality resources. Think along the lines of the TES resources website, but with some moderation and a modicum of quality control.
Vocational qualifications still need looking at. I had high hopes for the T-Levels and have been involved in the consultations from the beginning, but interest and commitment really doesn’t seem to be there, which is a huge shame. Not every child needs to go to university – the claim otherwise was one of the biggest lies of the last Labour government. So many young people are leaving university with worthless degrees and are left unable to find a well-paid job. Instead we should further promote apprenticeships, which are proving successful in industry. The Government would also do well to encourage extra-curricular subjects (dance, drama, music) as the arts are just as important as academic subjects for building the whole character.
Of course, I’ve left one of the most important points until last. Behaviour should become the main focus of the next education minister. Poor behaviour is preventing so many young people from being able to achieve a good education. Not necessarily their poor behaviour, but the poor behaviour of pupils around them.
Schools that implement high standards and low tolerance for bad behaviour are often lambasted in the press and face a backlash on social media. This is unacceptable. Schools need the full and proper backing of the Government and associated bodies to implement policies that ensure pupils demonstrate good behaviour for learning, so that every child is able to access the curriculum.
Tom Bennet’s report is a good place to begin. If a good education is the best form of enhancing social mobility, we’re doing young people a disservice by allowing rampant bad behaviour to go unchecked. All the recent hyperbole around exclusions isn’t helpful. Sometimes, unfortunately, one child has to be removed for the safety of the other 1,200 pupils and teachers in the school. It’s not a decision anyone makes lightly, but it’s one we have to trust schools to get on with. All children deserve the best start in life, and that means we have to enable adults to create a safe learning environment for all.