Great rather than good teaching is what we should aim for in our new world

Friday, July 14th, 2017

by Fergal Roche

A few observations of how teaching and leadership might be changing at the moment…

I was asked the rather broad and challenging question this morning, ‘What do you think is going on in education at the moment?’

I think the questioner expected me to reply in terms of doom and gloom but in fact I found myself being more upbeat than even I might have expected. Firstly, I am beginning to see signs of schools working more closely together than I have seen for a long time. I don’t know whether it’s the multi academy trust structure that is forcing staff in individual schools to work more laterally than they have done in the past, or whether the Research Ed and Teach Meet movements have led to an increase in teachers engaging in professional dialogue across multiple schools, but I sense new collaboration on the landscape. I am sure this is set to be bolstered by the College of Teaching injecting some institutional energy into the sharing of evidence-based practice and the promotion of professional development.

Cuts in funding are inevitably leading to another look at how school management teams are organised. By that, of course, I mean that schools are realising they can’t afford as many people in senior roles. Is that a disaster? Well, if it leads to our schools becoming more teacher-centric, then it could be an opportunity for us to address one of the critical issues of our time in education: how to stop the fallout from the profession of vast numbers of relatively new entrants every year.

England has one of the most inexperienced cadres of teachers in the OECD. Over 50% of our teachers have less than 10 years of experience. Teach First and other programmes have done so much to bring our most talented graduates into teaching, but have they also had the unintended consequence of presenting teaching as an entry level job? Success tends to be measured as a teacher in how quickly you can get yourself out of the classroom. After four or five years, graduates expect to be well on the way to becoming assistant heads (and therefore teaching greatly reduced timetables) or they are leaving the profession to take on ‘serious’ jobs with real potential elsewhere, with an impressive teaching stint embedded in their CV. Is it any wonder that we struggle to see teaching as a job that is so highly complex that it requires decades of experience to master?

A few years ago I became a governor of a large, very successful, secondary school. I asked, by way of induction, if I could see what the school considered to be outstanding teaching and I was invited to observe some six or seven lessons taught by highly successful teachers. My abiding impression from the morning I spent there was that by far the most innovative and impressive lesson was taught by a teacher in her late fifties. She was the head of music and was introducing jazz as a theme to a GCSE class. Part of the group was being taught by A-level music students, another part was using GarageBand to compose their own jazz and another group was studying the history of how jazz came into being in the first place. Students moved from one group to the other. The lesson had pace and intensity and the teacher moved around the three groups making sure that learning was taking place as she intended it to. As a teacher of some 15 years’ experience myself, I was in awe of how well this complex learning experience was engineered and directed.

But I suspect that practitioners of this quality and experience (30+ years) are becoming scarcer in today’s profession. No longer do we consider teaching to be something that can get better and better over time. We treat it as a relatively straightforward technical skill, where following schemes and templates can ensure lessons are at least adequate. A recent conversation I had with a secondary school head confirmed this for me. She said that as long as teachers are good enough, that’s all she cared about. Of course, like many of her colleagues, she was concerned about the next visit from Ofsted. How sad it is that we are losing our perspective with regard to the rich depth that truly great teachers can take us. What of Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi when we think about the great models we have in our profession?  Do greatness and teaching no longer walk hand in hand?

So, I wonder whether some of the constraints that we are currently facing in education may have the very positive, and possibly unintended, consequence of schools focusing much more on teachers and teaching than on management.

In terms of governance, the new MAT boards that are being assembled appear to be focused on bringing together serious minded and competent professionals from many different walks of life into the common endeavour of running a successful group of schools. I wonder if this might mean that local governing bodies or committees or councils or whatever we want to call them, will end up with a far narrower remit and therefore becoming a lot smaller. This does not have to be a bad thing either. Some schools I know have five committees, with groups of governors meeting just about every week of the term, meaning that the head and/or the deputy head or the school business manager have to prepare huge amounts of paper, data and reports. The sooner we can remove the expectation from heads of having to run burdensome secretariats for governance, the better. Heads should be experts in enabling excellent deep teaching to be the norm in their schools. Increasingly, in MATs, they have to work collegially with the other heads in the group to ensure excellent teaching right across the group of schools, softening the tendency to be the isolated soloist.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a presentation where some 20 teachers across a group of 10 schools (independent, state, secondary, primary) were presenting the fruits of their (NFER-supported) year-long enquiries into how they could improve the outcomes of their students in different areas. The professional dialogue that this engendered was hugely impressive and I came away thinking that the future shape of our schools could encourage much more collaboration across the profession than we have seen for many years.

Of course we need to address the fears of many heads that they will lose authority in their schools as they share it with the CEOs of the MATs. Once Ofsted start inspecting MATs as a group rather than individual schools, it will make it much more the norm that heads of schools consider all the children in the schools across a trust to be equally their concern, rather than the children in their school alone. I’m sure this change will come before too long.

So, yes, I am positive about the future, whilst I recognise the issues and challenges that still face school leaders right across the country. As ever, I’m hugely confident that we have a profession driven by the moral purpose of ensuring that every child has equal access to the best teaching they can possibly get. Our profession has coped admirably with challenging weather conditions before and I am confident that we will do so again. Indeed, we won’t just cope, we will transform ourselves into a profession that truly harnesses our vision to transform lives as we work more and more closely together.

Comments 3

  1. Ian 14th July 2017

    We might all do well to remind ourselves of the impact of good teaching -In dry economic terms the value of a good teacher is huge ; the same is also true in social terms. For example I think I am correct in saying that one sports teacher in Whitchurch ,Cardiff taught Sam Warburton, Gareth Bale and Geraint Thomas -all world class athletes who bring joy to thousands and of course earn high salaries, spend some of their earnings on services and goods which give employment o others and pay large amounts of taxes.
    “Behind every great man/woman …their is a teacher. All of our achievements are built on the shoulders of others who went before us.
    Out with bushels, in with lights.

  2. Fergal Roche 15th July 2017

    It would be interesting to try to quantify the future value to society that great teachers are creating as they go about their daily jobs. However impossible, it would at least make us think about the teacher’s longer term significance

  3. learnershipukJohn Williamson 18th July 2017

    One element of your lovely Music teacher example caught my eye, Fergal: “I was in awe of how well this complex learning experience was engineered and directed.” What defines the exceptional teacher is just about this – not their content knowledge, or their method of control or instruction – but about how they lead the learner, and empower a group of learners to self-manage and co-manage – across all kinds of technologies, backgrounds, barriers, and learning preferences. Although your example learned to teach long before web and collaborative learning was even thought of, her approach is clearly one of inspirational leadership rather than teaching through basic 2 way (often one way) communication. Learning facilitation is a competence well above that of teaching, as is leadership. It’s time to differentiate, define and reward it when at that level. John.

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