Every month I promise myself I’m going to suggest a topic for #blogsync, partly because I look at this one and think, “I have literally no idea how to answer this question”. Short blog then…
I’ll have a go anyway though.
In order to truly answer this question, we would first have to answer the question I posed several #blogsyncs ago: “What are schools for?”. Our schizophrenic conception of what teachers should be means that we are, as a society potentially, conflicted about how to perceive the profession. Once we know what we want then the status question should follow, shouldn’t it?
I got to thinking about this topic during our most recent Ofsted inspection, just a short couple of weeks ago. One colleague suggested that she’d consider becoming an inspector when one looked at the potential pay for what you had to do. I suggested that the down side would be incurring the hatred of an entire profession. My colleague hit back with the suggestion that teachers are hated enough! Now I’m not sure I agree, and in my experience, as well as the usual jibes regarding holiday length and the timings of our working days, many people suggest that they couldn’t do what I and my colleagues do. And I agree. There does seem to be a concurrent popular perception however, supported by the media and fuelled by the current Secretary of State for education, that many teachers themselves can’t teach. This, in combination with the easy painting of teaching Unions as “radicals” or Bolsheviks is damaging when we consider the recent measurement of the public perception of teachers. (Eloquently written about here by Chris Hildrew)
Since I began teaching in 1998, there actually have been a myriad of approaches to try to improve the status of the teaching profession. Central to this has been the fact that teachers are better paid than they ever have been. It’s a blunt old tool, throwing money at a profession, and economists will tell us that money isn’t a motivating factor. Particularly when we stack up the accountability agenda next to the increase in pay. The perception that better pay will automatically improve the status of a profession, attracting better quality teachers and therefore improving outcomes has been flawed, particularly in relation to the dilapidation of our schools and the deprivation that exists in so many areas. People don’t want to work in these circumstances and often choose not to. The answer to the problem of recruiting the kind of teachers that we think we want has been largely approached through programmes like Teach First, GTP and, more recently, work based approaches like Schools Direct – all programmes that I’m sure have produced some excellent candidates and, eventually, teachers, but that smack of a tinge of desperation. Shortage subjects and the “wrong” people in the job means we have to suggest it can be picked up “on the job”? It can’t. It takes constant review and reflection and often the best teachers were not the best students. There is more to becoming a teacher than the highest degree from the best institution. You have to really want to do it. (See HeyMissSmith on this one – she’s ace!)
Which begs the question then, how do we make teaching a job that people really “want” to do? Dunno. But I do know that the best teachers are those that really want to do it.
Making teaching a Masters level profession is a good step forward but, when one examines the quality of the MTL in particular and the 40% pass mark, as well as the PGCE counting towards MA credits, we yet again smack of desperation. Can it really be that if we don’t smooth the path, then the best candidates won’t progress? Were they the best then? And how will we ever know if we don’t truly test them. Really, this is a poor mans nod towards Finland. This itself is flawed. We can learn lessons from Finland of course and Pasi Sahlberg is a world renowned expert who we should (but won’t of course) listen to.
Finland’s education system is based largely on equanimity and equality. These are the grounding factors which mean that schools are there to offer the same, high, level of experience for every student, irrespective of background, creed etc etc. Sounds like a great idea, but when one transplants that idea to the UK, we can start to pick gaping holes. We are not, and have never been a society based on equality. The privileged in society have always had access to the “best” education, largely privately and now paid for at University. We have Grammar schools as a “foot up” for the clever working classes and have a distinct suspicion of the division between the academic and vocational curriculum. Mr Gove’s recent suggestion that Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” is an example of dumbing down in the curriculum surely couldn’t be something to do with its blatant socialist moralising about the inequalities of British society, could it? The inequalities in British society are even more obvious when one examines the background of the current political classes.
And so I moan, but really though, how do we improve the status of the teaching profession?
I do have a few suggestions, and they go further than the suggestion that a school or an education system can never be better than its teachers. That’s not true. If it were, we’d never have any FA cup upsets for example. Improving the calibre of teachers is a valiant call but fatally flawed. How many brilliant, eccentric, wildly depressive, mad teachers have we worked with that, given the criteria used to mollify the right wing media, would never have gotten in a classroom?
The major problem with healthcare and education in the current climate is that neither of them makes money. There is no discernible “profit”. At least not straight away. And that’s annoying, particularly if you want to prove “worth”. A major first step in improving the status of the teaching profession is to improve the basic infrastructure for the delivery of education. Schools. Many schools still reside in huge Victorian buildings that, only when adapted can be adequate for the delivery of education. Other schools, those around the fifty year old bracket, are dilapidated and falling apart, vying for the funding and the programmes that provide capital investment or new buildings.
In the same way that Victorian railway stations were built to resemble cathedrals to reassure the travelling public of the safety and veracity of the transport, shouldn’t schools be the modern cathedrals to education. The capital funding and time required to make this a reality promotes a conviction that schools, education and teachers should have a high status.
The growing expectation and potential necessity for teachers to be Masters qualified is unconvincing whilst the quality of the programmes is less than adequate for purpose. In the same way that Doctors will continue to research and publish papers, teach and lead areas of expertise – so should teachers. This isn’t, at present, a high profile aspect of the Teachers Standards but perhaps – if we are to have a high status – it should be? Many teachers are suspicious of the academics who are celebrated as education “gurus”. Perhaps creating our own studies of “what works” as an integral part of our job would support a higher status amongst other professions, graduates, parents and crucially students.
It seems that an Ofsted style “watchdog” will always exist. So, if it has to exist, it could and should be comprised of teachers. All teachers, as part of their PGCE and subsequent Masters study, should be trained as inspectors. All teachers, almost in the form of a kind of jury duty, should be called upon once in every five years or so of their career to carry out an inspection as part of a team. This will require ongoing training of course and will require that all teachers are performing to a standard that makes them a reliable judge of another’s abilities and performance. If this organisation is to exist however, it should be purely to insist that the best thing schools can do is forget them and concentrate on the core business of providing the best education for the students within their own school. (Convinced by this one? Me neither – it needs some thought – but there’s something there I think.)
“Top Gun” Training
Teacher training has the perception of being the place where the almost retired or less than capable leaders go before they die. It should be like “Top Gun”, the best of the best trained by the best of the best. The best teachers, leaders, ASTs, SLEs, Heads, Heads of Dept, Pastoral Leaders, Children’s Services leaders etc etc should be encouraged to be seconded for short periods of time (2 years potentially), allowing for leadership development in their own schools and for their expertise to be utilised in training the next crop of teachers. These periods of time should overlap to ensure that “handover” isn’t a problem and the programme should be a nationally agreed framework (a la Finland?) to take away the element of competition that pervades more and more areas of education.
…and it’s that simple.
Without wishing to end on a note of negativity, I do wonder if it’s in our national make up to raise the status of a profession such as teaching. The Postmodern period has seen such a decline in the respect for authority (and that’s a good thing I believe) leading to a “second opinion” culture. That’s good if you’re a consumer of a service, not so good if you’re the authority figure being questioned. As a nation, we want our figures of authority to be fallible – built up and then extremely fallible – and able to be questioned openly. Most people’s experience of particularly school has made them fairly suspicious of teachers and school systems for whatever reason, perhaps mostly because we are entrusted with the care and guidance of others’ children. It’ll take a couple of generations of good experiences at school for that status to be raised I’d say.