Cuts, gigs and uber instructors – ripping the relationship out of education

There was a time when a teacher’s legal duty to act in loco parentis was a profound duty- our own version of the Hippocratic oath. In those days, children were parented. Not by two people but, for most children, by lots of adults who knew each other and knew them by name. The parenting relationship mostly but not entirely fulfilled by females was nurturing and educational. It was important to society that, in the classroom, teachers took on that parenting role in all its sobering reality. Education was founded on the most profound human relationship known. 

Nowadays children are parented by one or two people sometimes supported by a grandparent. By and large, they do a good job. Men spend more time with their children than previous generations although still nowhere near as much as women (and for a significant group of children there is no father).  What has changed significantly is that parenting as an activity has been devalued. Parenting is far too long-term and vocational to be of interest to those in power. For society, for the media and for policy-makers, being a consumer and being known and accessible  online are far more important aspects of an adult’s life than being a parent. If parenthood is not valued then neither is the teacher being in loco parentis. 

The term loco parentis speaks of a relationship of significant knowledge of the child. The problem is that the parenting relationship involved is expensive because it involves an investment in time and care over a period. This is the relationship that is partly responsible for primary schools looking like they always have done because it is a relationship that relies on a classteacher being with children for most of the time.  The dramatic cuts being imposed on schools over the next three years are designed not just to save the treasury money but also to free schools from the past by ending the reliance on one class teacher for 30(ish) children.  Why pay a qualified classteacher to get to know children when parenting is no longer a valued activity.  

Whereas I think the majority of parents do a remarkable job, policy makers see parents as both consumers and flexible workers for the service economy. These two roles are crucial. If parents reduce the money spent on goods, the post-industrial economy will fall into recession immediately. If parents do not undertake part time, flexible work, labour costs will hit company profits hard. This is why politicians do not criticise parents: there are too many of them who have a vote and are needed to fulfil key roles in consumption and employment. Teachers, on the other hand, are relatively few, tend to vote the same way whatever (in England) and are fair game for a good bashing.  In the past, teachers were blamed for a great deal of what had once been the parents’ responsibility. Now that politicians do not see the importance of parenting, they don’t see the need for teachers to play a significant role in children’s lives beyond giving knowledge that can be tested. Enter the uber instructor. Armed with a script and a smile from the customer service handbook, these unqualified staff will be summoned by app to deliver to children. Online feedback will rate both delivery and the school. Self-employed with no sick pay or pension, the uber instructors will save the treasury, and through the cost cutting MATs, a significant sum of money. 

In DfE documents the term ‘headteacher’ is increasingly replaced by ‘system leader’. Once again relationship is being removed. If headteachers focus on the systems which allow uber instructors to deliver knowledge, they will no longer need to get to know staff and maintain effective staff relationships. In the future, the interaction between system leader and instructor will be through the rating system of delivery and school. 

Along with the teaching script, the key system in the school of the future will be ‘exclusion’ in order to quickly remove misbehaving pupils. Unless the system to remove those children who misbehave is slick, the instructor will not complete the script and the rating given on both sides of the interaction will suffer. 

The problem with removing relationship from schools is that it changes the basis of education and also leaves a significant number of children excluded from learning. 

My view is biased by my faith, my upbringing and my experience. Relationship is key to my concept of learning but is not in itself always good. As I grew up, my friends and I spent most of our spare time out of our houses learning about the world through petty crime and some fairly antisocial behaviours. These experiences were part of our relationships. Now people spend most of their time inside, crime has fallen and relationships have changed.  The problem is that the adults (neighbours, shopkeepers, police) in my childhood who kept us in some sort of check and dealt with us  when we got into trouble have no online equivalent today. Both those friends and the adults we knew outside of the home played a role in nurturing and teaching us. As we are confronted with a significant increase in attachment disorders among children, stripping relationship out of primary pedagogy is another step to removing the structures through which people have always learned and which offer all children including the most vulnerable hope of future opportunities. Uber instructors and system leaders will only meet the needs of those who are compliant and able to memorise easily. I may be wrong (and I hope I am) but the low cost education of the near-future may see a much larger proportion of pupils consigned to the underclass. 

Reliving the past

Storm Doris blew in but the pall bearers managed the coffin well in the exposed consecrated ground of Quinton cemetery. We laid my mum to rest amidst tears but also with thanks for her life. It was a day of talking about the past. 

Born in the depression in the industrial Black Country, my mum’s life was not untypical for women of her generation in being at times very tough.  This blog is not about her (“I don’t want eulogies when I die”) but about her experience of education. 

She was taught in a large school room sectioned off for three age groups up to 14  year olds. Children sat in rows. The headteacher sat on a raised platform in the central sectioned so she could see across the whole room. Behaviour was good and children were drilled in a range of subjects. My mum was happy at school. As she got older she was given more responsibility and rose to it. On Fridays she would collect the dinner money for the week and walk to the bank on Oldbury High Street. Educationally she did not thrive at school because memorisation of the facts did not come as easily to her as other children. From school, she went on to the technical college to learn to type. Her experience left her not realising how intelligent she was, and she really was. She appreciated beauty and music (stolen from her when she became profoundly hard of hearing later in life) in remarkable ways; she understood meaning at a deep level; she found wonderful ways to support and nurture people within her wide circle of family and friends. But she grew up in the era of the 11 plus and the sheep being separated from the goats so she learned early  to think of herself as not academic. 

While the world changed at an astonishing rate during her life time, the educational direction of travel is now heading back to replicate much of what my mum experienced. Large classes with children in rows facing the front to memorise knowledge and then be tested in order to establish worthiness. I think direct instruction and rote learning are very important elements of teaching but pedagogy was extended because a proportion of children did not have their needs met or their intelligence recognised. My mum was fortunate to be brought up in a large family within a tight knit community that nurtured her as a child. The world has changed and fragmented communities no longer play the nurturing role. Far from being supported many young people are isolated by the technology they use to try and connect to the world. To simplify education in a way that mimics the distant past in order to cut costs is to deliberately fail to meet some children’s needs and to lessen humanity. 

Vocations – balance and the art of happiness 

A brief discussion with Kieran Dhunna Halliwell prompted me to think further on work/home balance in context of vocation. The development of my thinking is also indebted to a presentation I saw Daniel Eglin deliver at Newman University in Birmingham as part of his doctoral study. 

Despite talk of the gig economy, uber teachers and millennials, I still see evidence of vocation in people entering the teaching profession.  Although I am a Catholic who sees vocation as a higher calling that brings someone into a closer relationship with God through specific service, I am writing this in a secular sense of being brought into teaching through a commitment to broadening the life opportunities of young people. To me that means that there is a fundamentally moral motivation to teach to the best of my ability.  Morality is not something I usually feel comfortable with for fear of hypocrisy but in teaching, I can see and talk about moral purpose because it runs through all effective practice. 

In conversation with Kieran, I thought further at the extent to which the moral vocation of the teacher  is exploited by policy makers and, closer to home, SLT to the detriment of the teacher and teaching. 

Increasingly, as local council services are cut, we are acting out a role of society’s safety net because families have nowhere else to turn. The educational support services we need to access for our children are overwhelmed and so our vocation leads us to stretch ourselves ever further. Tanya Byron, in an excellent presentation to the new Chartered College, twice said that teachers should not be doing the work of psychologists but we are increasingly dealing with children who are not safe and whom society will not provide the necessary resources.  

The low retention rate of primary school teachers (a third are now under thirty) is driven by workload. However strong your vocation, exhaustion is a physical reality.  Exhaustion made worse by pernicious accountability systems that create top down pressures that overwhelm individuals even those with strong networks. OfSTED has improved its work significantly in the last two frameworks but we still have previously successful, experienced staff with a strong sense of vocation forced out in response to inspection. An important development to support the vocation to teaching has been the teacher wellbeing networks especially from Jenna Lucas and Kerry Mcfarlane. 

We long ago reached the point where those with a vocation to teaching, think twice before applying for a course. Anecdotes suggest that whilst many entering initial teacher education still have a vocation, there are many who do not and are filling a short gap in life. 

To work in teaching without a sense of personal vocation risks the key elements of: being motivated to continuing to develop professionally; maintaining an open mind and investing time in the depth of reflection that underpins effective classroom practice. 

In talking about work/life or work/home balance we need to think of having a range of vocations rather than the one to our classroom. The vocation to teaching needs to be balanced to our vocation to our family and our vocation to ourselves. Vocation to family means spending crucial time with our children, siblings and, for some, parents. Vocation to ourselves is played out not in a selfish sense but by keeping active and healthy.

 When we lose the balance between our vocations, our families suffer (my children have repeatedly), we suffer as individuals and our teaching suffers to the detriment of the children whose lives are influenced by the quality of our work. 

This half term, I know I need to reflect deeper on how my vocations can be held in balance and how I can model that for others. As a Catholic, I see vocation rather than material consumption as providing happiness in my life. As a teacher, I believe that vocation gives a deep moral meaning to my work. That at times over the years, I have failed miserably, is because I only saw one vocation not many that are interrelated. 

PISA league tables and the cuts – on the road to nowhere

In 2011, Michael Gove declared Andreas Schleicher, head of education research at the OECD to be “the most important man in English education”.  The PISA data published every three years is all our politicians need to determine policy. At over 400 pages long, the report is almost biblical in allowing people to chose the parts that support their beliefs.

For politicians, the key paragraph in the 2016 PISA report states that science teachers’ qualifications do not impact on science attainment but the method of teaching does. This single paragraph explains why politicians are happy that headteachers are complaining so loudly about cuts. The evidence to last week’s Commons Select Committee was about schools making key staff redundant. If you are politician, large scale school redundancies will be evidence that expensive teachers whose qualifications apparently make no difference are being replaced with cheaper unqualified staff and apprentices who can follow the “how to teach” script. If you are a politician, you will be pleased.
The only factor that could dent a politician’s happiness would be loss of the parental vote in key constituencies. Despite the policy constraints of a small majority, the government are riding high in the opinion polls and appear to have little to fear from headteachers setting out the impact of the cuts in letters to parents. As a society, we are seeing patients on hospital trollies, reading about record prison suicides, walking past homeless people in shop doorways and collectively shrugging our shoulders. I think we can predict that school redundancies and broken PE equipment will receive the same response. It feels as if, in a post-public service society, only a rise in mortgage rates will impact on a government’s popularity. Having enjoyed the benefits of well funded public institutions and home ownership, my generation seem happy to deny those things to our children. 

The problem with using Schleicher and his PISA tables as the sole rationale for the current policy is that the OECD is an economic organisation. Economically, the basic skills tested by PISA are very important to both humans accessing life experiences and also to companies’ profits. Educationally, basic skills rightly receive a significant focus but there is far more to human development. By cutting subjects and expert staff, we are in grave of danger of failing a large proportion of children who will be condemned to have little part in the economic, cultural and political life of society and all because we want to be higher up the global education league tables. Our society and our education system cannot be Singapore or South Korea because the variables are too great. The economics of PISA, focused on company productivity, will increase inequality not social mobility in the UK and will create a far larger underclass. We have been here before in our history and it really wasn’t that great. 

“Happy the eyes that can close” – on the reality of the cuts to education spending 

The proposed cuts will transform every aspect of education far more significantly than the ideological and philosophical debates of the past.  

The resignations of a number of headteachers over the last few weeks (including a high profile educationalist on Friday) evidence the impact of the scale of cuts being implemented across the schools/academy system. Whilst the most vulnerable staff are those on low pay and short term contracts, the cuts require a radical reduction in staffing costs that includes those on the highest salaries. 

The staffing structure of the future can be seen in the Free Schools, academies, through schools and university training schools that have started from scratch without inherited staffing structures. The future is one of unqualified teachers delivering a narrow curriculum focused on exam results in a competitive, marketised and commodified system. The successful CEOs will earn significant salaries but will spend little time in any one academy. The workforce will be relatively young, low paid and replaced frequently. The quality of education as measured by data will be assured by OfSTED. There is nothing new in this prediction but it has taken the proposed cuts to begin the process of making it a reality across England.  Over the next few years, experienced staff from headteachers to every role will be leaving schools. 

The Plowden generation of teachers will find a huge amount of pain in what is happening because a lot of what are considered gains in terms of how we support children and families will go. Parents will see little change in primary academies because there will still be an adult responsible for a class however children will find themselves more obviously divided between sheep and goats. The compliant children with strong memorisation skills will be rewarded while those who struggle academically will be less valued and those who defy authority will be sanctioned and then excluded in ever greater numbers. 

To make all this work, academies need strong behaviour systems to replace relationships; good text books to replace teacher subject knowledge and a supply of young people looking for a couple of years’ employment to replace expertise. 

If it were not for the human cost, I would have no problem with what is happening. As a country we voted for austerity and therefore we should not bemoan the impact of cuts but, in terms of primary education, in dismantling one of the best systems in the world, we are reducing the future opportunities of a significant proportion of our children. For that reason, I look at the proposed cuts with my eyes open and I weep. 

Defining community -The tension at the heart of education policy

The Governance Handbook published this week speaks of schools being “fully integrated with their local community” and yet the document promotes a business model of governance where non executive members of a remote board make decisions across a number of academies in the name of a brand rather than the families whom they would once upon a time have served.

In the past, a school served a defined geographical community which had both positives and negatives. Overtime, this has become diluted through the creation of markets and, to an extent, the reinvention of the school as a business is a natural progression. The problem with the business model is that education is not a commodity like any other. Learning requires a far greater relationship between people than the purchase of an item in a shop or supermarket.  It takes a community to raise a child whereas individuals consume at the mere click of an amazon button. The trust needed for me to learn can not be built simply through customer service desks and complaints’ departments. The parent or carer is too important to education to compare to a customer in other contexts because children are complex human beings. Whilst removing the decision making from a school to a comparatively remote Multi Academy Trust board will support the difficult financial cuts ahead, the distance undermines the key relationship up on which education in the past stood.

Gone are the days of OfSTED requiring schools to promote Community Cohesion. As long as we explicitly instruct children to adopt British Values, we do not need to worry about the shared understanding and ethos that defined the relationships across generations and defined a community. The only community we seem to focus on now is that of a ill-defined group of consumers making choices in a fragmented education system. In the developing market, the Multi Academy Trust’s brand is becoming more important than the education of a community’s children. Yet the world has not moved on sufficiently and, even in cities of high mobility, people continue to identify with an area and a school. Parents want to be recognised in their community and by their school.  In rural communities, there is little choice and having a multi academy trust making decisions about academies many miles apart reduces the voice of the parent and the partnership upon which education used to rest.

We may be evolving into a species whose relationships and networks are online but education still requires real life parents and teachers working together for the good of all children. The love and trust that learning requires cannot be packaged, branded and sold from a distance because it exists within the shared human values of real communities.

Why prescribing the percentage of teacher talk  does not impact on learning

This short blog is in response to an interesting debate on Twitter about the percentage of a lesson we are told should be taken up with ‘teacher talk’.

There are two figures that are being discussed. One is that of the talking in a lesson, 20% should be from the teacher and 80% from the children. This number appears to be one of those plucked at random because it sounds good. The other number 90% as the percentage of the lesson taken up by the teacher talking which is taken from education systems ranked at the top of PISA ‘global’ league tables.  Prescribing either figure as a generic percentage hides the importance of the quality of talk. For me, quality is about a teacher’s ability to use clear concise instruction, modelling, questioning and feedback not about percentages. Focussing on improving those elements will impact on children’s learning. Part of that focus needs to be ensuring teachers know what the data tells us about effective teaching and learning at different ages but expertise rests on a much wider understanding.  

I’m going to use two sporting analogies so if I haven’t lost people already, I will now. 

1) In 2008 England’s cricket team went to India filled with confidence because the English Cricket Board had worked out statistically how to win matches. They knew the scores they would need to get,the percentage of games they would win based on different scores and how those scores should be broken down over the course of a game. They lost every match. On the radio today one of the players, Graham Swann, was asked how they had lost so badly. He said that the team were “clueless” about how to win matches. Having the percentages at their finger tips was no replacement for the combination of the high levels of skill needed to win. 

2) For the last few years, Brentford FC have based their football on mathematical modelling. Watching them play is always entertaining because the statistical analysis leads them to do unusual things but they are still a mid-table team because a mathematical model cannot fully compensate for having relatively less skilful players. 

Data is important but can only take teachers so far. The EEF website is fascinating and the research well-presented but knowing what the evidence indicates cannot compensate for a lack of subject knowledge and pedagogical skill. Prescribing percentages will not determine the impact of teaching; only the quality of teaching will do that. Based on Alexander’s excellent book “Culture and Pedagogy”, if children talking more than teachers were important, US public schools would do better. If teachers talking for a high percentage of a lesson were key, Russia and France would have world beating education systems. 

Teachers need expertise including in how to use evidence and how to respond flexibly in the face of a significant range of variables. That range of variables is dependent on complex elements that contribute to a society’s culture. Through routines, rituals and branding we can try and create mini cultures within schools but, across the system, we need teachers who are expert in what they do. At the heart of that expertise is how to use talk in the classroom. An expert teacher saying relatively little will have a greater impact than an inexpert teacher talking at length.