Category: Free Schools

A Conservative Vision: No Money, No Teachers

In November 2014, Tristram Hunt warned of the impending catastrophe in teacher recruitment. In an article in The Guardian, he pointed out the shortfall in meeting the targets for teachers entering the profession – an article that can be read here.  In March 2015, Mary Bousted of the ATL commented publicly on the numbers of teachers leaving the profession.  In April 2015, The Independent ran this article highlighting again the potential for crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We have been talking about a crisis on teacher recruitment for a while now.  Whereas once, it was passing conversation – odd drops in the number of applicants for once popular posts, gentle musings even, combined with a sense of optimism that things would pick up – perhaps it was a funny time time of year to be recruiting, perhaps people were just staying put – now, it seems that educators are staring with alarm at a growing hole in the teaching profession.  A growing hole in the shape of thousands of teachers we need, who just don’t appear to exist.  Only a few days ago, this appeared in the TES by Ann Mroz, highlighting again Nicky Morgan’s toughest challenge.  Getting teachers into the profession and getting them to stay.

As Mroz states, there are distinct and tangible reasons why teachers are in short supply.  An increase in demand for places due to population increases could be one huge factor in the need for a greater number of teachers.  However, combine that with the spreading thin of current teachers across an explosion of new free schools and academies and the lure of overseas teaching posts (with the almost opiate promise of tax free income and accommodation provided for free against the backdrop of austerity in the UK) and suddenly the maths doesn’t add up.  More institutions dilute the pool of teachers we already have.

And then we have the leavers.  Those who pack up their whiteboard markers with regret (for I have never met a teacher who left the profession without a wistful thought as to what could have been) and carry their stained coffee cups into the day to do other things.  Why would they stay?  One can only guess at the damage done to the teaching profession in the last five years by the Apollyonic Gove, dragging the profession through a valley of humiliation.  When the rhetoric is against the Blob, when the implication is that teachers are somehow lacking in the desire to improve – why would anyone be attracted into a one-way ticket to flagellation?  When the curriculum doesn’t stay still long enough to allow anyone to gather expertise, why would someone choose to place themselves into this educational Charybdis?  Even when there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Nicky Morgan, she chooses – on the day before the return to work – to announce her campaign against “coasting” schools.  The collective groan from my Twitter timeline cannot be ignored.

Her announcement today is offensive.  It implies that teachers and leaders are happy with average.  I have never worked with or in a leadership team where I heard the words: “Yes, I think our results will do just fine.  Let’s have the same results next year, in fact!”  If anything, decent results breed an intense pressure to increase in the following year a percentage pass rate that was hard won in the first place, particularly in inner city schools with challenging intakes.

We know we need more teachers.  It is undeniable that greater numbers of teachers are required in English, Maths and Science.  In 2003, the Labour government attempted to solve this shortage by introducing the Repayment of Teacher Loans Scheme.  It did not last long enough as an incentive and a study by Professor Coe of the University of Durham found that if teachers were leaving due to the pressures of workload and its adverse effect on personal well-being, the financial incentive to stay wasn’t great enough.

I absolutely believe that schools should pay to recruit outstanding teachers, but that can only happen without detrimental effect if there is a steady stream of talented people entering the profession.  As a senior leader in an inner city school, I have become increasingly aware of another consequence of the marketisation of education.  Now that we have schools able to set their own pay scales, the savvy teacher knows to negotiate.  Recruitment in shortage subjects has become an auction-process of staff going to the highest bidder.  How does a school, with no stream of private funding, compete with large chains who have salary points and incentives set above and beyond other schools in the local area? Experienced staff come at an absolute premium.  Unfortunately, that premium is out of reach for some schools.

And this is another gift of Conservative policy: increased pressure on school budgets.  Changes to Post-16 funding, changes to criteria in funding for pupil premium students, a commitment to only ‘maintaining’ year-on year funding overall – in real terms a reduction in per pupil funding – and changes to pension contributions have meant that schools face serious financial challenges.  How, in that context, does a school compete to recruit the best teachers and keep them?  One solution is in increase in pupil numbers.  Do we want schools to be busting at the seams with more students than the building can safely hold?  Some school buildings are not fit for the numbers as it is, especially in inner city areas.  Catering for more pupils becomes a Sisyphean task – more teachers needed to teach, bigger buildings needed to accommodate, more resources and still, in the heart and soul of this – not enough money.

The end result is not sustainable for a country that wants to compete internationally for educational acclaim.  To save money, you recruit (where you can) young, expendable and cheap staff that you can wear out with increased responsibility on top of teaching load.  These teachers have a life span of four or five years, which again, is fine and dandy if you have en endless supply of new teachers.  But we don’t.  And I don’t believe teacher burn out is an acceptable side-effect of poor funding policy.

It takes a brave government to step in and deal with the burgeoning issue of teacher recruitment and challenges to education funding.  I look at this Conservative government, as I did here in 2011, and I am not sure they are up to that task.


Defending Success: Comprehensives are not dead in the water

I imagine you’d find it odd going back to work after a six week hiatus in which arson, looting and the total breakdown of society have been laid at the door of your profession, in not so many words.  Teachers all over the country have returned to work and most importantly, many of them have returned with these messages ringing in their ears: you aren’t good enough, we’re going to open new kinds of schools and let the private sector show you how it is done.

Thanks.  Leadership in education is a fine balance between carrot and stick, yet it seems that this week, David Cameron has chosen a large stick and abandoned carrot for good.  His assertion that “those opposing free schools are simply defending the establishment – an establishment that has failed pupils and infuriated parents for too long” made me pause in wonderment.  The declaration that private establishments like Eton could help turn around state education only made my jaw drop further.  David Cameron’s leadership and management textbook chapter this week clearly focuses on how to break your workforce down only to build them up again in some miraculous manner.  Objective achieved, Mr Cameron, I feel rubbish.

The constant reference to the ‘failure’ of current educational models is, quite simply, a lie that is used to serve a political purpose.  It doesn’t work in the interest of raising standards for all.  It does not encourage a sense of collegiality between educational establishments and it certainly does not encourage qualified and professional candidates to join the workforce.  In the past ten years, an astounding amount of work has been put into recruiting teachers into a profession that is valued; why would anyone want to be a teacher when the message from government is that most schools are either ‘coasting’ or ‘failing’?  Why would anyone join the profession when the implication is that you might end up being complicit in the “scandalous acceptance of under-performing schools”?

To return to collegiality, I am sure I am not the only teacher in state education to feel a little incredulous when told that private education can teach us all a thing or two about teaching.  A friend of mine worked in a tough inner-city school in Edmonton, an area notorious for being deprived and dangerous.  When he and his partner relocated to Scotland, he found a job working for a private institution.  He was amazed by the difference in teaching he experienced: no real need for assessment for learning, no reference to objectives or outcomes, no need for any interactivity or independent learning – just a relentless information-heavy hour where the children did very little and still performed very well.  You don’t need to be a genius to work out that teaching in a private school is very different from teaching in an inner-city state school with high levels of deprivation.  In the most uncollegial way, I would like to see exactly what a private school teacher could teach me about teaching.

I’m afraid I am a little confused about Mr Cameron’s exact aim.  If he wants to replicate the Swedish education system, he may have to do some serious rearranging of British society.  Swedish society is largely homogenous and their education system does not cater for the diversity of our population, nor the large gap between the richest and the poorest.  If he wants to allow all middle class parents to place their children in schools where the presence of the poor is limited, he cannot be on the same chapter as me in the great history of this nation – I was certain that the agenda was increased social mobility, not a segregation of rich and poor from an earlier age than previously recorded.  If he wants to improve education, is he really going to do it by making a large percentage of his workforce feel like they have failed?  That’s not how I raise attainment in my classroom – if I did that, I would fail in my objective – to ensure that each and every child feels like they can achieve something in their time with me.  Nobody wins when they are constantly told they are doing it badly.

It feels like our government’s understanding of change in education is very different to mine.  For me, change in education is only possible through the collective movement towards an improved delivery of knowledge, a sharing of pedagogy and a deep understanding of the needs of each echelon of society.  It is not the creation of competition; it can only be improvement through collaboration.  All too often, even now, successful schools guard their success jealously – becoming exclusive boxes, islands in the middle of boroughs, rich and poor.  We need replicable models, built on fair intakes – and I refer specifically to the news that some free schools will only have a fifth of their intake on free school meals.

To put it simply, by defending the many thousands of schools who get it right every day, sometimes in tougher circumstances than David Cameron can ever imagine, I am not defending failure.  I am defending success.  Comprehensive education is not dead in the water.  It has produced successful people who now prop up society in all sorts of ways and I would hope that I am one of those people.  And, as a product of the comprehensive system and a teacher who started her career in a comprehensive school in Newham, I guess I am more qualified than Mr Cameron to know what it gave me and what it gives thousands of children on a daily basis.

Free Schools: Toby Young vs The Guardian

Am I the only one to feel a steady sense of disquiet when reading Toby Young’s rather vitriolic comments on The Guardian’s news splash on Free School funding? From someone who is attempting to lead the vanguard of the Free Schools movement, it is somewhat surprising then that the words “dunce’s corner” and “antediluvian teaching unions” should stray forth from the mouth of one who will be in charge of a teaching institution. In a blog for the Telegraph, that is precisely what has happened.

Forgive me for thinking that the phrase “dunce’s corner” was consigned to the history books in forward thinking institutions and that educational reform had erased this sort of language. Perhaps I have missed something about the esteemed Mr Young. Perhaps I mistook him for someone who cared about teaching and the way that educational professionals present themselves in public. Political mudslinging is not something I associate with the best leaders in education. Toby Young’s language in reaction to The Guardian’s entirely justifiable news article on how the taxpayer’s money is spent suggests to me that he has not considered what it means to lead an educational organisation.

This is only compounded by scathing reference to teaching unions. One of the first things a teacher learns when starting on their educational journey is that no matter what you do, become a member of a union as it may prove invaluable if something goes wrong. In schools where unions are belittled and marginalised, discontent and mistrust become endemic. Teachers need to feel protected within an increasingly litigious society. Some of the best head teachers I have worked with value the input of the variety of unions and understand the impact of having a comfortable workforce who have an organisation to turn to when things go wrong, as inevitably, they do. Perhaps I mistake Toby Young’s meaning when he calls unions ‘antediluvian’; maybe he does value their work and understand why they are necessary. Or maybe a man of his background, educational experience and life story finds it difficult to see why they may be of value, even when they protest and disagree and, God forbid, defend the rights of teachers regardless of the political party in power.

He also states that The Guardian stands alone in its criticism of Free Schools. I beg to differ. There are many who have been critical of Michael Gove’s education reforms; many of those are experienced teachers who understand what those so called reforms actually mean for students and parents and communities. Those critics aren’t sceptical because they have a political agenda – they are sceptical because the world they’ve worked incredibly hard to build is being turned on its head. This doesn’t make them dunces, it makes them cautious about change, which in some circumstances can only be a positive thing. Caution and questioning are essential in educational reform; they don’t prevent change, they merely interrogate it. If Toby Young doesn’t appreciate the need for interrogation, close scrutiny and the possibility that some people may criticise, he’s entering the wrong profession.

Do I support the creation of Free Schools? My own misgivings lie in the possibility that they may engender greater division in communities, particularly in terms of faith and inter-faith understanding. I admire the sentiments behind some of the faith organisations creating Free Schools, however, I suspect that just because you say that a school is open to everyone in reality it will be known as a school devoted to a particular faith and remain closed to those of different faiths and none. Do I believe that Free Schools will drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. It was said that the academies movement would change the face of education and it did do that, but did it drive up standards? In some cases, possibly. Declaring that one thing, in this case allowing parents, teachers and communities to set up their own schools, will single handedly raise attainment, close the achievement gap and increase social mobility, seems a little far fetched. I want to believe, but as a teacher and someone who likes to ponder on those things, I think healthy scepticism is allowed.

As a reader of The Guardian and someone who cares about how the government implement and finance educational reform, I can’t help but feel that, unintentionally or not, I have been called a dunce by Toby Young. Believe it or not, I’m not taking it too personally. I do worry that the West London Free School will be run by someone who doesn’t value a diversity of opinion or political differences. Someone who believes that it is acceptable to point and laugh at the lone voice in the “dunce’s corner”. What kind of message does that send to parents and children?