David Thomas has worked as a Head of Maths at a central London comprehensive school and as an adviser at the Department for Education.
If I had to summarise the dialogue between teachers and government over the last ten years it would look something like this:
Teachers: “Stop telling us what to do”
Government: “Okay. Go forth and teach however you want”
Teachers: “This is a travesty, the government aren’t telling us what to do!”
The main ambition of education reforms since 2010 has been giving schools and teachers more power to act in the best interests of their children. So why have they been so unpopular? The simple reason is that many teachers have not been adequately prepared for this level of freedom; they were never trained for it, have no experience of it, and so preparing for it has created a daunting workload. They’re also scared that they might get things wrong (and that when they do, they will lose their jobs).
When Michael Gove came into office he immediately began a programme designed to relocate power as close to the frontline as possible. The theory was that people in schools are best placed to make decisions about those schools, and so aside from some necessarily national decisions (like the content of exams and the structure of school funding) we should concentrate authority in the classroom. Part of the rationale for this is that bad ideas tend to come from people who don’t have to implement them, and so reducing the influence of non-teachers over teachers would be a (net) good thing.
Under this new system there would be no return to the National Strategies, where Whitehall mandated the minutiae of thousands of lessons, or SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) where education advisors forced their buzzwords into every lesson plan. Now if a government has a new idea about how to teach it can influence and persuade, but it cannot enforce.
That’s why when it stripped away National Curriculum levels it launched a prize to fund nine different possible assessment models, but left every school free to choose its own path. It’s why when it decided to learn from the Shanghai approach to maths teaching it funded a teacher exchange programme and a network of hub schools to showcase the methods, but left every school free to teach however it chooses. It has recognised the danger of mandating national teaching methods, and has dismantled the architecture that would allow it do so.
What the government didn’t anticipate was how unwelcome this change would be with teachers. It turns out that teachers may have wanted freedom, but they didn’t want it like this. The systems that have been removed were bad ones, and needed to go. Teachers even wanted them to go. But what they didn’t want was to have to design their own alternative overnight. They had never been trained to build systems that had previously been put in place by government, and they quickly realised that there’s a big difference between knowing why something is wrong and knowing how to make something that’s right.
Let us take an example. Removing National Curriculum Levels freed schools from a burdensome and highly flawed system, one that gave the illusion of rigour and consistency whilst being little more than a common language for arbitrary judgements. Teachers had to mark using the dreaded “APP grids”, huge tables of subjective descriptors against which each element of each piece of work had to be matched.
They created unnecessary work, and were often detrimental to children’s education. But after a few months it became clear that getting rid of them was not a popular move. Why? Because now teachers had to design their alternative. And designing a comprehensive assessment system from scratch, in a system with high-stakes inspection where you fear for your job if a mistake is made, is a daunting and stressful task. In particular, it is much more daunting and stressful than continuing to follow a burdensome system you know well.
Let me be clear. Removing bad things is good. Levels needed to go, as did many other elements of the system that have been reformed. But we all – government and teachers – failed to anticipate how big a task it would be to replace them. And when we consider teachers’ increasing workloads we realise that they are not caused by what government is telling them to do, but by what government is not telling them to do.
Where reforms have worked best has been where good leaders stood ready to capitalise on new freedoms. The best schools and academy chains knew the flaws in the old systems, knew what they wanted to change and how to get there, so were able to move as soon as the opportunity arose. They have now leapt ahead of where they were and demonstrated the value of autonomy.
But consider the plight of the teacher working under a less capable leader. A leader who is living hand to mouth between inspection visits, fighting just to stay in post. Their staff do not work in an environment where they can spend time thinking about how to use their newly gained freedoms. To them these freedoms are yet another weight when they are already struggling to stay afloat.
The next phase of reform needs to help these teachers in these schools. They teach many of our most disadvantaged children, and often do so in the most challenging circumstances. When their leadership is not willing or able to give teachers the opportunity to use the freedoms they’ve been granted, then we need to find them leadership that is.