Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for eighteen years, first of a Lincolnshire grammar school and then of an academy in Hackney. He now runs his own consultancy, specialising in school improvement.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to have been recently invited to write a report on school improvement. Better Schools – The Future of the Country was formally launched on June 26 by the College Green Group, a Westminster strategy group.
The report looks at ten aspects of schooling and makes forty-two recommendations, all of which would largely cost the Treasury little or nothing, and most of which could be implemented before the next general election. The report is not written from any educational point of view (except from one of practical experience and from a firmly held belief that all children can succeed, but not in the same way or to the same extent) nor from any political standpoint, other than a belief in the small state and the freedom of the individual.
The report is not a covert attempt to win votes (although there is a clear recognition that there are over one million votes in England’s schools – just over half a million teachers and just under half a million support staff). Had it been so, it would be full of fantasy ideas like the recent proposal that teachers should be given a one-term sabbatical every five years. Quite who is supposed to cover these experienced teachers’ lessons during a period of severe staff shortage was unclear.
The report is, fundamentally, an attempt to genuinely raise standards, not in terms of some narrow metric or league table, but across the board for all pupils and all schools. Its underlying mantra is that to raise standards we must empower “teachers to teach and pupils to learn”.
Whilst this may initially appear a trite banality, so many youngsters fail to achieve as highly as they should because of poor behaviour; of being forced to study courses that they not only fail but know they are going to fail one or two years before they even sit in the exam room; because teachers are bogged down with non-essentials, with continually changing curriculum demands; because teachers are looking over their shoulders as they are unsure of where they stand legally on some issues; because schools do not have the full complement of permanent, well trained, talented teachers.
In any one of these scenarios, plus several others, teachers cannot teach and pupils cannot learn. Rectifying this must be the priority.
Over the past thirty-six years (since I first became a teacher), practically every aspect of schooling, with one crucial exception, has changed – exams, curriculum, teaching methods, the legal status of schools, and funding, which has gone up and up (about £72 billion this year, second only to Health). But for all that change (and all that money) can we honestly say that we have a school system that is the envy of the world?
Can we even say that we have a school system that is fully fit for purpose? My starting point for the report was to ask the fundamental question, not “are we doing things right” but rather, “are we doing the right things” with the supplementary question, how do we know? This is certainly not an attempt to criticise past or present policy, but it is a willingness and boldness to challenge the status quo in order to improve all schools and the education of all pupils.
I mentioned that one aspect of schooling is unchangeable for the foreseeable future: the continued transformative power and priceless value of the talented classroom teacher. Most of us will remember them and have benefitted from them, yet more and more leave the profession early and fewer and fewer people seek to join. These statistics cannot and must not be pushed under the carpet.
According to the latest workforce survey, last academic year some 44,000 teachers (9 per cent of the workforce) quit, of whom only about 4,000 retired. (The argument that there are more teachers in schools than ever before misses the obvious point that there are also more pupils and schools than ever before.) Almost one-third of new teachers leave the profession within five years. I should argue that it takes five years to become a good teacher, so we are not only talking quantity but also quality and experience.
We also have fewer people training as teachers; at secondary level, the Government’s target for recruitment has been missed every year for the past eight years, with only one exception, and to take the most frightening statistic, this academic year, only 17 per cent of training places for physics teachers have been filled. How are we to grow the next generation of engineers, architects, and AI specialists without the requisite number of well-trained teachers?
No school can be better than its teachers. The emerging national recruitment and retention crisis must be the immediate priority if we are to genuinely improve our schools and raise achievement. What is clear, however, is that this is not simply an issue of pay. Indeed, it could be argued that pay is not an issue at all.
At the start of the current industrial action, the National Education Union made it clear that members were taking part in a “pay ballot”. The result? Only 53 per cent of NEU members bothered to vote. (Two other unions failed to even reach the requisite 50 per cent turn out.)
For most teachers, pay is not the most important issue. It is other factors – poor pupil behaviour, weak leadership, workload, ever changing requirements, a perceived lack of respect and status, and Ofsted. It is with these wider issues that my report primarily deals:
It is noticeable that the attitude of teachers appears to have hardened during the current strikes. Why? I should argue that this is largely because following the tragic suicide of dedicated headteacher Ruth Perry, no one in Ofsted or the government openly admitted that there are flaws with Ofsted and that inspections could be made both far more effective and useful as well as less threatening for teachers.
Interestingly, changes have subsequently been made and the Education Select Committee is currently considering further improvements, but an immediate willingness to take teachers’ concerns seriously – and that certainly did not require advocating the scrapping of inspections – would have gone a long way to making teachers feel valued and that their views were respected.
I have absolutely no doubt that we can improve our schools. The starting point is for all involved with schools – at school level, MAT level and at policy level in Westminster – to work together to create a climate, a culture, a system in which all can flourish: where pupils can flourish and teachers can flourish, because it is the latter that dictates the former. The climate and system in which this can happen is one that prioritises empowering, “teachers to teach and pupils to learn”.