Nicky Morgan has a tricky task. She must maintain the momentum of reforms designed to restore schools to their proper purposes, largely against the will of those who control them. She must also tackle genuine grievances from teachers, whose views are not usually in line with those of either their bosses or the people who claim to speak for them.
She has done well three times in the past ten days. She told a Birmingham conference that she is “not your woman” for an ideological battle, made a marshmallow of Tristram Hunt at parliamentary questions , and gave clear, reasoned and firm answers to questions on examination reform at the Commons Select Committee.
One of the benefits of our policies came from a largely unreported parliamentary answer on school absences by Nick Gibb. There had been a fall of roughly 10 million in the number of school days lost per year to absence, and a drop of nearly 100,000 in the number of pupils persistently absent.
Only a tenth of the improvement was due to the tougher line on holidays, and there is now a means for schools to record absence due to very serious illness separately, so that they should not be penalised, as some have in the past, for keeping children with cancer on their roll while they spend long periods in hospital. I’ve seen rough justice handed out here, as well as on holidays, where I know of two families who have not had a holiday this year because of the threat of sanctions. Getting rid of the rough justice depends on Ofsted, and I’m not hopeful.
Nicky Morgan does not like the term “blob”, and told yesterday’s Observer that she was not sure of its origins. Well, I am – or thought I was. I first saw it in Class Wars, a book published by Sir Chris Woodhead shortly after his resignation as HMCI, but it apparently dates from a 1987 speech by the US Secretary of Education William Bennett.
I didn’t like it either, as the progressives I knew were more like an octopus, with informal networks that got in everywhere and did not let go. The octopus was an incubus that had nothing to do with real teachers, but operated in teacher training, union leaderships, local authorities and various charity boards. It managed to claim to speak for teachers even as it misrepresented what most of them really thought.
This is still the case. Professors Whitty and Mortimore both former directors of the London Institute of Education, have specifically criticised both the idea of “what works” as a basis for educational research, and the principle of improving schools, as this is likely to benefit the pupils who are already doing well, and so contribute to inequality.
Most of teachers’ current grievances relate to behaviour, paperwork and pensions. There is not much Ms Morgan can do about pensions, but she might consider a changing role for teachers over the age of sixty. Their experience fits them very well for individual work with pupils who have special needs, or for other management duties that are less demanding than teaching full classes. The title senior teacher for those working past the age of sixty would be an appropriate recognition of their skills and experience.
The government has given heads the power to enforce discipline, but most of them won’t use it, as they don’t want to face up to the confrontation with parents described so well by Jane Fryer in her description of the work of Dr Rory Fox in the Mail.
By contrast, see Jonny Mitchell’s Educating Yorkshire, where he waited until complaints built up from other parents before taking any action, and in the meantime expected his staff to put up with abuse. Teachers should not have to put up with abuse. Ever. A pupil at Mossbourne who is rude to a teacher knows that he or she will go home at six o’clock that evening, and this should be the case in every school in the country.
Heads are also responsible for most of the paperwork. If national curriculum levels assessed by staff were accurate, they could base their monitoring of teaching on them. Unfortunately they are not. Even when they are honestly assessed, the slightest indication of a characteristic of a level can be put down has it having been reached, and it is quite clear from the accounts of individual teachers that many are put under systematic pressure to act dishonestly by senior management. Some have even insisted that teachers invent starting levels for subjects such as languages, when pupils are starting from scratch.
Heads could and should replace this approach by monitoring pupils’ work rather than teachers’ planning and records. I would not go as far as the French system, in which a head has no authority over the staff at all, but I would remove from heads the authority to inspect teachers’ planning and records without good reason. Good reasons might include complaints from parents, poor work when heads look at pupils’ books, failure to set homework, or poor marking. Nicky Morgan’s workload survey is an excellent idea, and she must act on it.
Finally, some examples of “what works”. When Janet Lloyd was made redundant from her local authority, she set up the Janet Lloyd Network to provide advice and training on languages to local schools for a subscription of £250pa. It was a huge success, and Janet has now received one of the government grants for training in the new national languages curriculum after Nicky Morgan extended the scheme.
Ros Wilson has developed her work on moving from spoken language to writing as a local authority adviser into Big Writing, an approach that has brought rapid improvements in writing in difficult primary schools, in contrast to what she describes as the failure of Labour’s national strategies to improve writing. These books are expensive, but on balance worth it, as careful study of them saves the cost of sending teachers on a course. A school in Yorkshire has recently reported a breakthrough based on combining Big Writing with my own free lessons.
Nicky Morgan is right. What matters is what works. We must get back to it.