My wife has just left teaching after a second five year stint as a secondary languages teacher. Frankly we are ecstatic that she has found a different job. The 60 hour weeks (which 13 weeks off do not make up for) left her burnt out and desperate for a job she could leave behind at the end of a working day. Teaching is like a creeper – it invades everything – evenings, weekends and those supposedly work free 13 weeks. It is relentless. The whole thing is underpinned by massive pressure on everyone in the system.
This overbearing pressure is seeing teachers leave the job in droves and the numbers of new trainees slide. My wife’s message to our son is very simply – ‘Do not become a teacher’. A frequent response to the news that she was leaving was ‘Well done for getting out’.
Thankfully the penny seems to be dropping with the new education secretary Damian Hinds recently making a speech, acknowledging the need to address teacher workload (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43345857).
Things need to change or there will be massive teacher shortages. Things need to change, because the philosophy behind our education system is not good for teachers or our children, like my son who is a year 10 pupil (that’s 4th year secondary in old money).
Successive governments run by different parties have emphasised the importance of increasing standards in education. No-one would argue with that or with the need to expect good things from inner city schools or with the benefit of having a system to measure how well schools are doing.
The problem for me is that education these days is often not so much about helping children to succeed as avoiding failure. A system focused on enabling children to succeed would equip teachers with the necessary time and resources and allow schools to teach a broad and flexible curriculum geared towards making the most of children’s talents. A system focused on the avoidance of failure involves pressure on schools, teachers and children to do well because of the fear of the alternative – the fear of the sack for staff and of a poor future for the children.
I don’t believe that fear and pressure is a good basis for equipping children for life, fear of failure is never far from the surface in schools. The government’s enforcer in this is the much feared Inspectorate, Ofsted. Schools are terrified of Oftsed and of a bad inspection. A few years back, my wife worked till 3am the morning before an inspection. An Ofsted rating is everything for a school. This pressure in turn drives everything, which means schools are awash with assessments and data gathering to track progress. Teachers do not just spend hours outside the school day planning lessons and marking books – they also spend hours serving the internal data industry that is a part of every school nowadays.
Before considering what could be done it is important to put on record that my wife’s last school, Handsworth Grange in Sheffield supported her really well. The issues that have caused her to quit are part of a much bigger cultural problems in teaching.
So how could our education system be different? Are there things beyond the myth of the super head and gimmicks to attract new teachers that could turn this around? Here are a few suggestions:
- Change the role and ethos of Ofsted to become an equipping and enabling organisation. Imagine if the role of Ofsted and its Inspectors was to share things that work well, to work alongside schools to address problems by linking them with colleagues and resources who’ve faced the same issues. Imagine if schools wanted Ofsted to come in because rather than fearing for their careers because they knew it would help them to do their jobs better.
- Change the focus of the curriculum from being purely academic to offering vocational routes. Other countries allow children to take different paths at 14 and do not look down on kids who want to become plumbers and electricians (skills we are short of). This would free teachers and students from the charade of trying to get some students to study subjects that do not match their abilities allowing them instead to pursue studies they will prosper in.
- Provide comprehensive resources for teachers alongside the curriculum. At present thousands of teachers are constantly having to create lessons from scratch for exactly the same topics. This is at the heart of teachers’ unsustainable workloads and it is madness. There are many skilled and creative teachers – why not pay some of them to create resources that would be made available to everyone? These could then be customised for different contexts but would mean that teachers aren’t trying to develop up to 20 lesson plans a week. Surely this would revolutionise teaching and free up time and energy for teachers to give children more individual attention.
Finally for those who believe in praying, we need to start praying regularly for those who teach our children and those we know who teach.
Beyond that we all need to thank teachers a lot more.