Is it easier to be an outstanding teacher or a competent headteacher?

Monday, December 5th, 2016

by Fergal Roche

I wonder whether we have got the paradigm completely wrong when it comes to our approach, as a country, to the teaching profession. There is an expectation that people become teachers for a relatively short amount of time and then, if they are competent, they get promoted and do relatively less teaching.

The scheme that the government (and previous governments) love is Teach First, where high-achieving graduates from top universities are encouraged to spend up to four years teaching in disadvantaged areas.

About half of them leave and join blue-chip organisations (many of which are Teach First sponsors), or join or set up not-for-profit organisations that support education in some way or another. Of those who stay, many are swiftly promoted within the school and end up on the senior leadership team within four or five years. And then, as ever, they do considerably less teaching.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it can make teaching look like a short-term charitable occupation that is very much a first-rung position. In fact, it seems Teach First has the highest drop out rate three years after qualification. Or it’s one that you join when you’ve tried other jobs, particularly where your spouse or partner is earning shed loads of money.

At a conference a few years ago, Professor Brent Davies suggested that the job of a teacher is, in many respects, more complex than that of a surgeon. After all, he argued, when you’re a teacher you have up to 30 children walking into your class with all their different needs coming from different places. Your task is to make sure that they learn in great depth the material that you have to get through.

But you also have to make sure that you are challenging each pupil as much as he/she is capable of being challenged. If you are a surgeon, it’s true that you need a deep understanding of anatomy, you need the experience of knowing a lot about what might go wrong with the particular part of the anatomy that you specialise in, and you become expert at dealing with the specific complications associated with it.

But you probably have fewer variables to deal with than the teacher. Now Professor Davis was speaking at breakfast time and was clearly trying to wake us all up, but he is right to point out quite how difficult and challenging the role of a teacher actually is. Certainly, he argued, it is not a job for dabblers, but a craft that can and should be mastered over many, many years.

The problem is that the paradigm we have promoted in this country is that teaching full-time on a full-time table is only for those who are relative newcomers to the profession, or for those who lack the ambition or potential to become managers.

What a sad indictment of our whole education system. We need our most skilled, creative, dedicated, hard-working people to spend their working lives figuring out how to teach (outstandingly well) all the different cohorts of children and young people who come to them year after year.

Currently we are obsessing about the different governance structures that we need in our academy trusts as they grow. I have been to too many meetings where the talk is all about how we create area hubs with area boards, with area leaders, and what the local governing body should do etc. I hear about executive heads or principals, CEOs, or whatever other roles are being constructed. But seldom do I hear a conversation going back to first principles which focuses on the primary mission of any school or group of schools: namely to improve the education of children and young people. If we were to address that first principle, then we would talk first about how we are going to attract and retain people who will be outstanding teachers over a sustained (and by that I mean at least 10 years) period of time.

How can we make those teachers more effective? What do we need to pay them? How will we recognise highly effective teaching? 

Once those questions are addressed, we can begin to figure out how best to put together a leadership structure, a governance structure and a full reporting structure. But we need to put the horse in front of the cart, otherwise your journey is going to be very clumsy indeed.

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