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Primary Education News
News Teachers, let's get behind the education spring
Education has been treated like a political football for too long. Now, the teaching profession is digging deep in defence and starting to tackle minsters, says Debra Kidd
Last week Michael Gove played a political blinder. In a week in which his policies had come under constant attack; firstly from teachers, then from the former director of curriculum of QCA, Mick Waters and finally, on Wednesday, from business leaders and the CBI, he needed a diversionary tactic.
He found it in an announcement about shortening school holidays and lengthening the school day – a measure he can never afford to implement because of the implications for pay. It was a clever move and diverted attention away from the key central issue that Mick Waters had raised in his speech in parliament on Monday. That our education system needs radical and unprecedented change, and that this change has to come from a body unaffected by the vagaries of party politics.
It seems that the education of our children has become every politician's favourite football. Each minister comes into office determined to make a difference, and often for no better reason than to be able to move on to a higher profile role. As a result, we have a system which is straining under the pace of change. Each one claims there is a problem needing to be fixed. They put in place a 'solution'. Teachers take on the solution, but before it can take effect, there is another minister with another fix. It has ever been thus, but there is a big price to pay and we are starting to see the cracks.
Teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands. Many of them are deemed to be outstanding, but they have had enough. According to a report by Unicef, our children are among the unhappiest in the world. Even before the effects of the economic cuts are taken into account, according to this research, we have the lowest participation in further education in the developed world and the National Office of Statistics reports that 20% of children in any one year suffer from mental illness. Something has to shift.
In his speech, Mick Waters called for an education spring. In fact, a trickle had already begun. That morning, a teacher's petition had hit the front page of The Independent and the story featured on the Channel 4 news. And those teachers are now organising a petition for parents who want to be informed of research unmediated by politicians. But his ideas go far beyond a protest; they are solution focused. He argues that there are two crucial failures in education. One is the political capital made out of education. The other is the effect of high stakes accountability on the integrity of the profession. In response to the former, he argues forcefully for an independent organisation to take control of education in the way that NICE manages medicine.
Let's think about that for a moment: an organisation that roots curriculum change and pedagogical guidance in evidence, not ideology. A body that would ensure, that whatever happened at the ballot box, there would be a degree of continuity and consistency. It would be unprecedented. It would stop the current ludicrous system in which children are never allowed to show that an initiative has worked before another one takes its place. It is not just a brilliant idea, it is necessary – our children and profession deserve nothing less.
Elsewhere in his speech, Mick turns his attention to the teaching profession. There is some pain and some blame focused here too. He points to the unfortunate consequences of a system driven by targets and results – game theory. He argues that when the stakes are high, the focus of effort is to appear to have been good – not necessarily to have been good. He argues that this leads to some unethical practices in our schools in which those deemed to be 'outstanding' are very often so at the expense of someone else. He is scathing about the impact of Ofsted on the behaviours of the teaching profession.
The vast majority of teachers went into teaching for one of two reasons, and often for both; they loved children or they loved a subject. But for many, within a year or two, the focus of their effort is neither what children need, or what they could do to improve and develop their own knowledge. The focus is Ofsted. It is as if we, as a profession, are engaged in a game of football where we are all running around after the referee instead of the ball.
The consequences of this are devastating. Entire cohorts of year 6 children sitting endless SATs tests, and studying a curriculum which consist of nothing but that which might be measured. GCSE students spending hours being coached through how to pass the examination.
The picture is worse when Ofsted arrive – schools thrown into panic. I've heard tales of teachers teaching the same lessons until the inspector comes in and bribing the kids not to tell. They are a rarity, but in desperate situations, when stakes are high, people do desperate things.
Mick Waters is right. We need rigour. We need to constantly strive for improvement; but we need to do so with integrity. He argues that it may be necessary to have a process of relicensing for teachers – not based on results, but based on a commitment to continuing professional development and to the holistic well being of children. Who could argue with that?
It is time to come together – parents, teachers, curriculum and pedagogical experts, as well as children, to take control of this game. An advisory panel, consisting of cross party representation and grassroots stakeholder representatives needs to look at these suggestions seriously and with an open and positive mindset. Our children are not political footballs and we need to ensure that we innovate with integrity. Let's not allow a political sandman to throw sand in our eyes. We are forming an education spring and we are asking for one simple thing. Let's root our profession in evidence not politics. In short, let's keep our eye on the ball.