Monday, November 12, 2007

17,000 ‘poor’ teachers?

Another day, another negative headline. Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, pontificated that there were ‘about’ 17,000 ‘poor’ teachers. I don’t know where he got the figure from – the back of a cigarette packet? Possibly he extrapolated the number from those lessons that Ofsted deemed to be only ‘satisfactory’ – in some of the ‘light touch’ inspections observations have only lasted ten minutes.

The TES Staffroom featured a fairly sterile debate between those who blamed unruly children and their parents versus the ‘I know some crap teachers in my school’ postings.

Predictably Taylor ploughed straight into the ‘falling standards’ argument, ‘We’ve got 400,000 of our children attending low-attaining schools; 75,000 leave schools at 16 with hardly any qualifications at all…’ Well nothing about how the selective schools that he promotes help to produce ‘low-attaining’ schools. And what about that ‘golden age’ of selective education? Fifty years ago fifty per cent of children left school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Naturally in Taylor’s world the solution is clear, ‘…if you have weak heads of department you ask them to move on and you go out and recruit fantastic teachers.’ Easy in’ it? There ‘s a massive queue of teachers just waiting to fill those jobs.

Once again we have that neat syllogism – low attaining results = bad school = rubbish teachers. In my experience in most ‘challenging’ schools teachers who can’t hack it get out. Poor teaching? It’s even more likely to occur in ‘coasting’ schools with ‘good’ results, that’s where you’ll find ‘Leather patches’ who has always sat in the same seat in the staffroom for the past twenty years.

Schools and teachers in some areas are just set up to fail, the middle classes in some cities have raised the drawbridge and retreated to the refuge of selective faith or grammar schools, leaving the comprehensives as the latter day secondary moderns.

The recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust showed what a divided society we have become, in many large cities almost half the population exist in ‘breadline poverty’ – it is the norm to be poor. There’s also poverty of hope, ambition and aspiration. It’s in the ‘challenging’ schools that you get a massive turnover of teachers. My MA was a case study on a school that had been in special measures for five years, one of the English teachers told me that he came in to work every day with the knowledge that he would have to teach five English lessons and every one would be hell. The head of department had gone there because he wanted a ‘challenge’, he quickly realised the enormity of the task. Every day he would drive in his car to the big roundabout by the school, some days he just turned back home and phoned in sick. Shortly afterwards the entire English department left.

The shame is that the debate on teaching is polarised between the ‘excellent’ inspirational teachers featured in the ‘Teaching Awards’ (the alternative take is that they are workaholic geeks with no social life) or failure - the teachers fast tracked under competency procedures. What about the mass of teachers who don’t want promotion, like to see their families, have a social life and don’t want to work 70 hour weeks?

To attract and retain the brightest and the best the government needs to ensure that teaching is an attractive job by making the pay comparable with other graduate professions. Training is negligible in many schools, most people don’t start out as ‘bad’ teachers. Give teachers back autonomy over the curriculum, on that note interesting to see that teachers at Unity Academy in Teeside are balloting for strike action over excessive demands for planning. Teaching should be about inspiring children, not a paper chase.

Teaching really should be the ‘best job in the world’. You just aren’t going to raise morale with the philosophy of – we’ll shoot a few ‘pour encourager les autres’. Nice one Cyril!

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