It’s the teaching, stupid

Why – I ask myself at infuriatingly regular intervals – in our chastened economic times, is Michael Gove spending money (and so much time) on such a speculative, long-odds, hit and hope punt as free schools?

Let us assume the focus of our endeavours, whether you are a political lefty or a righty or a don’t-give-a-monkeys, is on the question: what is the best, quickest and most sustainable way to improve children’s educational experiences and outcomes (bearing in mind, of course, UK PLC is a bit skint)?

Even if you are an avid supporter of free schools, someone who thinks the answer to the question is ‘a: Toby Young’ – or, conversely, if you are a determined opponent and think the answer to the question is ‘b: anyone but Toby Young’ – it is hard to justify the monstrous amount of political energy and will being expended battling for (or against) a policy which will result in the odd school here and there.

More importantly, this is a policy which in essence misses the most obvious response to the question.

Strip the school experience down to the barest of bare bones, and it is not, I’m afraid, the governance structure of a school that defines whether little Jonny has an educational career of impeccable quality and unremitting excellence. It is not whether the school is ‘free’ or whether it is maintained by the local authority, that cuts the mustard for Year 7 on a damp Friday afternoon.

What does, then?

As boring and as straightforward and as simple as it sounds: it’s teaching. Or, more accurately: teachers teaching well. The oft-repeated line that the quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teaching is the fundamental truth that should guide all policy-making. To misuse Bill Clinton’s campaign phrase: it’s the teaching, stupid.

In tough times, businesses look to their ‘cash cow’; the steady seller that keeps the tills ringing and profits healthy. They keep risks low, invest cautiously and look for reliable, predictable returns rather than taking a gamble. Unexciting, maybe, but in these times, reliable results are rightly judged to be more important than flamboyant failures.

So, why not – when each public utterance from our leaders contains the obligatory reference to deficit reduction and cuts, usually closely followed by the ‘difficult decisions’ said things entail – go for the easy win and invest our scarce pennies on teachers?

At the risk of being accused of blatant self-interest and self-promotion, the science backs this up: John Hattie’s remarkable analysis of educational research (‘Visible Learning’ – unfortunately not in a good bookshop near you) picks out the interventions that make the most difference to learning. Handily (Mr. Hattie is very helpful), these interventions are listed at the back of the book; of the ‘top thirty’, nineteen are directly related to teachers or teaching methods (and many of the other eleven are directly related to teaching skills too – such as behaviour in the school).

And, critically, it takes a long look down the list to find evidence of the impact of structural reforms of the kind being supported here – religious schools and charter schools (the U.S equivalent of our free schools) are both outside the top hundred.

So, what to do? Attracting new and better recruits into the profession is vital; tomorrow’s teachers should ideally be better than the current bunch.

But what of today’s teachers? How can they improve what they do? On this, from Government at least, so little seems to be said (aside from the title of the White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ – an attempt at flattery which fails to disguise the paucity of ideas within). If only the effort and the energy currently absorbed in establishing new free schools could be diverted towards the development of teachers.

Whatever cash we have – and whatever political will there is – would be most wisely invested in this area, not the unproven risk of free schools. I don’t mean more pay – I mean investment in the best training and development there is. Here’s a start: every teacher should be trained to Masters degree level, based on research and development which takes place in their own classrooms.

There will be few headlines, favourable or otherwise, to such a move. In fact, it would be very likely to send the dispassionate observer into a deep sleep – and perhaps that reveals why it seems so low down the political agenda.

Indeed at the end of a Parliamentary term there would be no new buildings, no Acts of Parliament – nothing to show for it, except a few thousand teachers who were better at their jobs, and many, many thousands of children whose prospects had been elevated and whose eyes had been lifted to see previously unimaginable horizons.



Filed under Conservatives, Free Schools, Michael Gove, Policy, Politics - general, Schools, Uncategorized

10 responses to “It’s the teaching, stupid

  1. MsAlliance

    I so agree. And conversely a bad teacher, and there are plenty of those around, can ruin a child’s life and interest in their education.

  2. What utter sense, I am yet to meet a colleague who thinks that throwing money at free schools is likely to be effective for the few children directly involved in these projects. One thing is for sure, the mere plan is iniquitous as capital funding is withdrawn, slashed or at best cut from most other schools. Love the idea of teachers formalising the learning the do in class, therefore getting more from it.

  3. Paul Shakesby

    Anoer excellent article. I completely agree with your conclusion of educating teachers to masters level, based on classroom based research. As a long term fan of Hattie (and Marzano) the Evidence based methods you describe are the cornerstones of improving our profession out of the dark ages, as is (controversial this) performance related pay / incentive. Our profession needs to become professional.
    Last night I watched the excellent waiting for superman. This is a documentary on the American school system. The standards between schools are more readily exposed there, leaving students at the lottery of school places, why – so they can go to the schools with the good teachers, those who care. They cannot, still in America shift the ones who don’t. The on quote that stood out for me, that summed up the teaching profession was
    “it’s all about the adults, when it should be about the kids!”

  4. Tremendous article, as VP of Paddington Academy which had £32 million spent on its new build, I thoroughly concur with your perspective. The government spent £32m and at the end of the day, it was just a building.
    A nice building for sure, and a new environment was certainly needed. IN terms of ROI from a business perspective you’d have to say that £10m on the building and £20m on improving teaching would have been a much better proposition.

  5. Great stuff. Seems common sense but then common sense ain’t common.

    Every single adult that I talk to can relate experiences of loving a subject because the teaching was good and inspiring and hating a subject because the teaching was bad and uninspiring.

    I favour a ‘guide by the side’ approach (a phrase coined by Mike Butler, I think) in which the pupils have much more say and input into their learning, with the teacher offering support and guidance.

    On the masters level learning, of course a teacher needs to know their subject, but I do not think it necessary at all to know everything, particularly with such easy access to information in our digital age.

    I spend time with my kids on mutual learning discovery’s with them, very often, contributing to my learning as well as vic a versa. Of course a teacher should know their subject well enough, but importantly should love their subject and be able inspire their pupils.

    Actually, somewhere down the line I would like to see a system where young people have access to a variety of learning facilities, digital, analogue and physical, including access to teachers when they feel they need it. Given that the young people know which teachers they like, know which teachers make things interesting, know which teachers inspire, the ones who don’t satisfy these criteria will simply not be picked, and naturally drop out the bottom. A sort of self regulating system.

    Given the access that is available now to a range of fantastic learning materials I don’t think this is a pipedream.

    • Thanks to everyone who has commented – a few quick thoughts in response:

      Mick – you describe a brave new world indeed, but my view is that the current Government will push for a focus on more traditional subject teaching and methods rather than the approach you envisage. But, let’s see…

      Tom – very interesting points. I didn’t want my comments to imply that I think environment is unimportant (of course, in an ideal world, children would have inspiring teachers and surroundings!) but I agree completely that in terms of priorities when money is tight the best returns, as you say, come from improving teaching.

      Paul – I wasn’t aware of Marzano, will have a look. The other person who is strong in this area is Geoff Petty.

      Jay – thanks again for your comment and really enjoyed your podcast.

  6. HRogerson

    Good article. It is concerning me that the government are removing the agencies that have the purpose of helping teaching and replacing it with a curriculum and new types of school structures. Let’s focus on how and why we do what we do in the classroom, that is what matters.

  7. This is an excellent blog posting, can’t fault a single word of it or a single argument. Politicians just don’t get education, they use it as a political football and something to keep their respective party faithful happy with. Gove is playing to his party with his ill directed (and ill executed) free schools free for all fandango, and it won’t make a blind bit of difference to education quality in this country.

  8. Lucy

    I totally agree with your idea that teachers should be highly skilled, and I do wonder if there are thousands of gems out there hidden by the enormous amount of bureaucracy in teaching today. I’d love to see what would happen to education if teachers were allowed to just teach.

  9. An excellent post, one that I’ll echo the “it’s the teaching, stupid”. As head of faculty, give me a high quality teacher, able to engage, motivate and inspire young people over “subject specialists” that think the being the worlds “best” Biologist, Chemist, Mathematician (insert your subject here) is the best way to teach.
    When I am asked what I do, I reply “teach”, when asked what’s your specialism, I reply “teaching young people”. I don’t mean this from a point of view of being superior, more of the fact that teaching in itself IS the specialism – your subject tag just determines the area that you can add most subject knowledge.
    No amount of CPD can address the fundamentals – the ITT process needs to be more robust and we need to be developing inspirational teachers from the “off”. Students need high quality teaching regardless of ITT, PGCE, or NQT status.

    Now, with the Governments ideas to fast track ex service people into teaching, I am genuinely concerned over the prospects for the next generation of beginning teachers. Teaching is a calling and a profession – some and we need to treat it as such.

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