There is a gap between political debate about education and what teachers experience at the chalkface. Political discussion seems to constantly centre on types of schools, the difficulty level of exams and the influence of teaching unions. However, from my time writing a blog about teaching for seven years I’ve learnt that there are three entirely different issues that teachers want to hear about, but which only occasionally get a political airing.
Teachers can tell you stories of quite hideous abuse, but also persistent defiance. What is euphemistically termed as “low level disruption” actually amounts to being completely prevented from teaching by students calling out or ignoring the teacher.
Politicians will sometimes talk tough, but the reality is that teachers remain dependent on the culture of the school they work in. Many schools have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture where any teacher reporting bad behaviour is blamed for failing to make their lessons interesting enough to keep the students “engaged”.
Schools often find it difficult to permanently remove even the most disruptive student, as choosing not to behave is not seen as a choice for which there should be a consequence. Does a policy of “inclusion” mean requiring the majority of students to have their learning disrupted by a minority, or should there be greater provision of exclusion units or PRUs?
2. Teaching methods
What politicians often miss is the element of compulsion in how we are expected to teach. Teachers can be observed teaching several times a year, and can expect to be condemned if they spend too long explaining, teaching facts or making students do written work.
If you want a career in teaching you will be expected to make sure your lesson is full of group work, play, conversation and children expressing their own opinions. While this may seem to be just a matter of the culture of some schools, this expectation has also become part of what OFSTED inspectors demand, despite their chief inspector’s claim that there is no required teaching style for inspections. In fact, if teachers were more involved in the debate we could be discussing the abolition, or at the very least the drastic reform of OFSTED so that an organisation that is meant to hold schools accountable would cease to be an example of arbitrary and unaccountable power in itself.
Schools have become heavy with managers over the last decade. It often seems as if half the teachers in a school are employed to manage the other half. It is not unusual for schools to have departments in which a majority of the teachers have management responsibilities.
Much of management is concerned mainly with producing paperwork, policies and initiatives which achieve very little other than to tie up time that could be spent concentrating on teaching and learning. Teachers frequently complain of their excessive workload, but the workload is very often not to do with teaching but “providing evidence” and compiling data for managers, attending meetings with managers and otherwise dealing with the consequences of working in a bureaucracy.
We should be asking questions about how schools are managed and look to see if a thinner management structure based on giving ordinary teachers support, rather than obstructing them while giving a status boost to the ambitious, could be introduced.
This is the world in which teachers live and it is a world which politicians seem to have very little understanding of. When politicians promise performance-related pay then they are promising greater power for managers to obstruct teachers. When they tighten up rules on exclusions they are ensuring that more teachers are subjected to intolerable behaviour. When they demand better results or tougher exams they are ignoring the pressure on teachers to teach in particular, less effective ways. When they seek to limit the influence of teaching unions then they are helping to ensure an already overwhelming workload can be increased with impunity.
Instead of another round of endless political debate on which type of school structure is best, politicians may want to consider the issues that teachers find themselves caring about the most.
All of the above issues are within the power of government, and all of them have far greater effect on my students’ opportunities to learn than those issues we see politicians and journalists focusing on.
Andrew Old is a blogger and teacher who has worked in several secondary schools. His blog can be found here.