Teachers, if you don’t like being measured, fix the problem yourselves

by Kevin Meagher

As schools started back yesterday for a new term, it must have felt like another upward trudge with a boulder for our leather elbow-patched Sisypeans. We know this, after all, because a recent poll found 55 per cent of teachers describe their morale as “low” or “very low”.

The gripes are familiar enough. As well as the usual complaints about pay and working conditions, 77 per cent of teachers in the poll commissioned by the national union of teachers thought academies and free schools were taking education in the wrong direction; while 71 per cent said they rarely or never felt trusted by the government, (up from 54 per cent in April 2010).

But it’s the issue of school standards that still seems to grate most. Last November, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector of schools, presented Ofsted’s annual report. It found that schools in England are getting better – although there is still a long way to go before the nation catches up with the best in the world. There are also wide variations in the performance of schools across different local authority areas, leading to serious inequities for children in some parts of the country.

The product of nearly 25,000 inspections across schools, nurseries and colleges, it is a rigorous and useful reminder of the challenges we face in making all our schools the best that they can be. However Sir Michael’s analysis of the problem is not entirely shared, it is fair to say, by the teaching unions.

Chris Keates, general-secretary of the NASUWT complained about the “rhetoric of criticism and denigration which surrounds any announcement on the education service”. The national association of head teachers’ Russell Hobby, warned of “rogue elements” within Ofsted’s teams which makes the experience of inspection “subjective and demoralising.” While Christine Blower, general secretary of the national union of teachers, said the report amounted to “naming and shaming” local authorities’ schools.

But what cumulative message does it send out to sound utterly dismissive and resentful about the discipline of continuous improvement? There is not even the perfunctory boilerplate about “welcoming the report” or finding it “challenging”. Nothing but a whiny victimhood and rejection of the very principle of measuring how well our schools are performing.

Bu the solution is in the hands of teachers and schools themselves: if they don’t want to be weighed, measured and micro-managed, then don’t tolerate mediocrity. The profession needs to take charge itself by stopping poor quality teachers with little motivation and low aspirations for the kids they teach dragging it down.

Too many teachers (and social workers, for that matter) adopt a head in the sand mentality to criticism which means every time they fail to deliver the goods the politicians above them react by turning the screw on them. Often this is an over-reaction (and both professions have a point here) to some unrepresentative case where the system has failed spectacularly, but the result is always the same: another top-down reform which generates more form-filling and box-ticking. Hence, social workers complain that they now spend four-fifths of their time on paperwork.

Indeed, teachers – who have long been forced to contend with ministers’ itchy trigger fingers – often have a decent case to feel frustrated and got upon, particularly after Michael Gove’s various petty antagonisms.

But a clear focus on raising standards should be axiomatic. So why is it made to sound like an unwanted and unreasonable intrusion? Teachers do themselves no favours here. It is plainly absurd to churn out classload after classload of innumerate, barely literate young people who go on to fail in life.

Yet it continues to happen in too many places, generating a divide in education policy not between left and right but between those who prioritise producer group interests and those of us who see schooling as the best stab at encouraging social mobility.

The political class (particularly Labour) is so timid when it comes to addressing workforce failings in teaching that the problem is hardly ever discussed. Instead, the focus is almost solely on structural reforms like academies, hoping that if responsibility for the management of schools is devolved to a decent headteacher and governing body they will drive through improvements for the politicians.

But all roads ultimately lead back to teaching standards. It isn’t progressive or left-wing to tolerate failing teachers and schools. It’s socially unjust and economically wasteful. The teaching unions need to stop sulking and grab hold of the standards agenda with both hands – and Labour should be bolder in urging them to do so.

And for those of us who will die in the last ditch defending the comprehensive principle, a failure to hold the line on the importance of standards makes that task all the harder.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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9 Responses to “Teachers, if you don’t like being measured, fix the problem yourselves”

  1. treborc says:

    Well this is another reason then to vote Tory, I see this as very very odd.

    Education has not got better due to higher wages, and it will not get better with lots of unqualified teaching assistants which was another way of Labour getting cheap labour and employment.

    Labour agrees that free schools has been the answer, well good then if your worried about free schools whom do you vote for.

    It;s getting harder and harder to find a reason to vote Labour these days. Toss of a coin in seems the answer.

  2. Alex Jones says:

    I seem to have found the Daily Mail editorial on your website. I wonder if anyone there has spotted the error…?

    This is the most simple minded rubbish – where is the evidence that our education system creates “classload after classload of innumerate, barely literate young people”? Just before Christmas the UK did admirably in TIMMS international tests and was rated the best education system in Europe (bar Finland) by Pearson.

  3. davidc says:

    for too many years british educational policy has been ‘equality of access to mediocrity’

  4. Nick says:

    71 per cent said they rarely or never felt trusted by the government


    How many kids fail to get 5 GCSEs?

    Quite. Not surprising teachers aren’t trusted when so many are failing.

  5. Kevin says:

    Treborc – The point of the piece is that the teaching profession is missing a trick by not embracing the standards agenda and simply either ignoring it or pretending that its somehow an unreasonable attack. I struggle to see how it can ever be progressive to consign kids to the scrapheap because the education system has failed them.

    Alex – There is no argument that, overall, many schools have and are improving, and I don’t make that point – however much you would like me to.

  6. swatantra says:

    If only. If teachers were left to devise the curriculum and run the schools without the interference of politicians then the Education system wouldn’t be in the mess it is today. Teachers know best what is good for the child. They can assess the potential and ability and likelihood of the future career and job prospects of a child without even the necessity of exams and tests. Most teachers are fairminded and don’t try and pigeon hole kids but give them every opportunity to succeed. Its usually parents and peer pressure that is the problem. And Govts, setting unnessary hurdles.
    So Christine Blower is right. Govts generally end up making a pigs ear of Education.

  7. Andy says:

    At the end of the day children are being educated in order to prepare them for adult life – a life which centres around employment.

    Therefore they need to be educated to suit employers – and they aren’t.

    My employer – employing just under 20,000 people in half a dozen locations across UK, when it advertises jobs – both graduate and non-graduate at all levels, calls all applicants forward to sit a set of basic literacy and numeracy tests. In fact the first test is to turn up. If you are late you are turned away (10% fail here). The tests involve:

    A simple maths test without a calculator in which you are expected to know both imperial and metric measures as well as the 12 and 24 hour clock.
    Being verbally told a set of simple instructions, then an hour or so later after completing all the tests, being asked to repeat it.
    Being shown a story in cartoon strip form and then writing a precis beneath it that describes it.
    A spellling test.

    Only people that pass get called for interview. The failure rate is around half, with graduates just as likely to fail as people who have left school at 16 with virtually no qualifications.

    If they get called for interview, the instructions as to how to appear are very precise – plain clean clothes, no facial piercings, at the alloted time – loads more fail at that stage.

  8. bob says:

    Andy: shows that schools lack discipline, a uniform and how to wear it and teachers who claim to educate but in reality do little, do not correct pupils work, mainly because, teaching ideology says ‘it’s not fair to correct or instruct pupils but you have to let them find themselves’. Recently Nick and Margret from the Apprentice were on R5 with the idiot Bacon relating to being in Preston. They were at an jobs expo talking and advising young people on the world of work. They were both shocked at the level and standards of CVs and presentation in a literal sense being so poor and the expectation that they would only start at about £350 to £400 pound a week.

    Schools should all become self governing Academies, setting their own standards, and more importantly pay levels on an individual level, that would really rattle the teaching unions as it would undermine their free collective bargaining. This could be linked to two level appraisal as in the armed forces, head of department and headmaster to make the appraisal. if a teacher is good and provides a high standard of education and results then they are rewarded as such, those not up to standard retrained and if that is insufficient, dismissed. Also, all salaries, are confidential to the individual, under the pain of disciplinary procedures and dismissal.

    The vast majority of the workforce, in the private sector and to some degree in the public sector are subject appraisal of their work performance and recompense is set accordingly. Should the above happen, it would break the teaching unions, in particular, calling strikes and disrupting pupils education and the knock on effect on parents education.

  9. Michael says:

    Andy: spoken with all the insight of someone who does not know much about schools.

    And regarding your caricatured analysis of ‘teaching ideology’, this might be of some interest to you – http://michaeltmerrick.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/teaching-time.html

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