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. 

For @AllanaG13 My experience of transition – extract from previous post 

The Secondary v Primary v EYFS divide
In the mid 90s I first saw “no excuses” approaches in a secondary school . As a Year 6 teacher, I was invited by a secondary with a comparatively poor reputation among parents to work on a transition project where a maths teacher would be in my lessons and I’d be in year 7 lessons. It was eye opening from the first moments when a year 7 pupil was put in detention for removing a blazer without permission. Clearly we had very different approaches. I trained my classes not to ask permission for basic needs but to get themselves sorted quickly and follow routines that enabled them to stay focused on their work (I still use the phrase “unless this room is on fire or there is an elephant loose, I don’t want to be distracted and neither do you” I love the part of Jonathon Lear’s book about ignoring messages from headteachers during lessons). If a child in my class asked permission to remove a jumper, they’d be reminded that there was no need to ask. Being in year 7 was therefore a challenging but fantastic learning experience. I began to understand why secondary teaching is so different. You cannot have the learning relationships that primary colleagues build day in day out that have such a positive impact on behaviour. Consistency in primary education includes our presence all day, every day. At the end of the project I felt convinced that the promotion of understanding between KS2 and KS3 was 1) crucial to enable us to support young people at that difficult transition and 2) for the knowledge base of the profession to be more coherent. I also gained an understanding of why the zero tolerance (or what is now “no excuses” approach) strategy was used and it could be implemented hand in hand with very strong pastoral care and good provision for young people with special needs. The teacher I worked with is now Headteaxher and the school is many times oversubscribed.  
In the 20 years since that transition project I have seen the profession go backwards as, rather than develop ways to promote understanding, the divisions and misconceptions between secondary and primary have increased. There are notable exceptions. A conversation with @shadylady222 highlighted superb work she has been involved with between secondaries and primaries in the south west. It is the strength of social media that we can be more easily connected enabling me to develop understanding through those conversations. Sadly, the way social media is also used to point score and grandstand has led to the promotion of comments rooted in ignorance of other professionals’ contexts. I have, at times, resorted to frustration at those in other age phases who “don’t get it” in eg the context of the importance of relationship in teaching. @imagineinquiry had to remind me that if I had a change of class every 45 minutes my teaching would look very different. Before anyone speaks of teaching as a single entity, they need to work across the age phases. Unless they do that, they should preface remarks with reference to the relevant age group. We should recognise that we have a huge amount to learn from each other. Everything that I have said about KS2 and Ks3 transition can be reiterated for EYFS and KS1.

Diversity – ensuring the most talented profession we can for the sake of the children whom we teach 

I was delighted to be asked to contribute a post for the launch of BAMEed. 

If we wish for the best teaching profession possible for the children of our society, it is essential we consider the diversity within our staffrooms. The best profession we could achieve would be made up of individuals with the specific combination of skillsets needed for an age group and/or subject area. To have sufficient subject knowledge, understanding of human development and the ability to maintain effective professional relationships is relatively rare and therefore we need to maximise aspiration to the teaching profession across all communities regardless of characteristics or identities. Where barriers are created that prevent potential teachers from aspiring to, or accessing, the profession, we diminish the quality of teaching upon which educational outcomes depend. A diverse workforce at all levels and across all roles in education is therefore about promoting the highest quality professional practice. 

Promoting diversity is also about social justice. Too many highly qualified people from Black and Asian communities are not becoming teachers because of discriminatory practices within institutions. These practices can persuade people who have the potential to be excellent teachers to either not aspire to the profession or lead them into having to deal with unfair rejection on application. As attainment gaps in schools have begun to close, the level of discrimination in the jobs’ market becomes more obvious. Whilst the issues of access to the graduate labour markets are much wider than teaching jobs, schools are part of the issue and therefore need their employment practices reviewed in order to find solutions. Hoping and working for a more diverse workforce is therefore linked to hoping and working for a more just society.

My hopes for a diverse profession are also part of a desire for an outward looking education system that benefits from different perspectives and understandings. In a situation where schools are encouraged to “grow their own” teachers, middle leaders and headteachers, there is a danger that our institutions become more insular and tied to a narrow understanding of the evidence base. When the gate-keepers to the profession are in schools, they are more likely to be risk averse and favour people already known to a specific institution. The desire to employ people “like us” in schools is part of the introduction of enterprise and business practice into education. Across the world employment in private companies is influenced by family connections and prior relationship and this development in schools creates an additional barrier to fresh thinking, understanding and creative problem solving. A significant amount of powerful professional development occurs through informal contacts between teachers. Where teachers are disproportionately from one, narrow group within society, the professional capital in the country’s staffrooms is undermined to the detriment of children’s learning. 

An education system is only as good as its teachers. If we want the best for our children, we need to hope for a more diverse profession.