“For so sworn good or evil an oath may not be broken and it shall pursue oathkeeper and oathbreaker to the world’s end.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
I have written a very short blog for TES Online responding to Tristram Hunt’s suggestion of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers.
On Sunday morning, Tristram Hunt suggested he wanted to add a new ritual to the world of education, the swearing of a Hippocratic Oath for teachers. Responses to this idea came in three flavours: outrage, mockery and bafflement.
The first need not take up too much time: say absolutely anything in educational policy discourse and some part of edu-Twitter will explode. The mockery, while funnier, is also fairly predictable: teachers are a cynical folk and deadpan humour helps while away the hours. The bafflement is more a problem, because it seemed both more common and shared by many sensible people: why an oath? Why now? What was it designed to achieve?
This blog first appeared on NAHTEdge, the new union for middle leaders.
The launch of a new venture in teacher trade unionism is a big deal. The recognition of the need for a distinctive voice for middle leaders, the staunch stokers of the engine rooms of successful modern schools, is even bigger. In a movement characterised by the conviction that the strength of our common endeavour is greater than our individual capacity, how do we explain why a separate unit needs to exist for those who have acquired some greater responsibility, but are not yet sat in the big chair?
To illustrate the value of marking out a space for middle leaders alone, I’d like to focus on perhaps one of the biggest issues handicapping our profession: teacher workload. Everyone recognises this, from the Secretary of State down. There is, however, often precious little we seem to be able to do about it. We could plan and mark less, of course, but the evidence is clear that (done well) those things are vital contributions to the quality of our teaching. We could rip out entirely the inspection and accountability regime and bin the league tables, but Wales did and, by some measures, it didn’t work out very well. We could ignore the possibilities of developing extensive data and never enter anything into a spreadsheet again, but that would be to stand against a (potentially very valuable) tide.
Instead of thinking on the big scale of abolishing Ofsted or forcibly uninstalling Microsoft Excel from every staff room computer, what if we came up with much, much smaller and perhaps more effective changes? One area I think we could do small but vital work in reducing the load is in an area I’m sure many middle leaders will shudder to think of: school management and information systems (MIS). The advent of networked computing in schools opened the door to integrated databases which ought to make overseeing attendance, punctuality, behaviour and academic interventions more straightforward. Far too often, however, the systems purchased by schools to do this are unwieldy binary behemoths which need hours more work to operate as required. To give an example, one system I’ve previously worked with provided breakdowns of behaviour incidents which occurred in school on a daily, weekly, termly and annual basis. It was possible to further examine this data by year group but not by subject, so collecting reports of disruptive behaviour in my department (a requirement of our school behaviour management policy) became an elaborate process of additional emails, in-system messages and fly-by conversations. This left chains of evidence in a mess which often took more time to clear up than the original problem.
Why would a bigger voice for middle leaders assist here? In almost all cases, it’s middle leaders who end up filling the gaps in MIS because as either academic or pastoral managers they’re the first responders to school policies. Although they’re often the primary users of the nuts and bolts of MIS, the product isn’t marketed to them. Only senior leaders can decide to implement a new MIS, and only they’ve the budget-holding responsibilities to pay for it. Often the functions of the system chosen are those most appealing to the customer sat in the IT providers’ sales pitch even if they mostly examine the outputs of the system and are less concerned with the inner workings. This is not a criticism of senior leaders: of course it’s right the system should work for them, and the purpose of having senior leaders is that they take a more strategic look at the operation of the school. But, technocratic and even dull as such conversations might be, a louder, more confident and better trained voice asking precisely how these systems will work day-to-day could be a useful addition to school discussions in the name of efficiency, effectiveness and workload.
Anyone who is interested can download the slides from my presentation today on the problems of class in educational research here, including the exciting attempt to explain Bourdieu’s model of social reproduction in a SmartArt diagram:
I’ve written a piece for today’s TES explaining why Gove remains such a signififcant figure for all education reformers (of whatever political background). His ambition and willingess to slay sacred cows was exhilarating, even whilst the precise nature of his ambitions and his slaying techniques could be exasperating. With him in charge, education had not just a day but several years in the sun – and as anyone who’s looked outside today will tell you, the sun can burn as well as heat.
Anyway, my piece is about two-thirds of the way down this page, and it starts like this:
“Famously, on the wall of what is now his former office in the Department for Education, Michael Gove had pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X. However, the historical figure he most reminds me of is George S Patton, the maverick American general of the Second World War. Almost any Patton quote sounds like a Govian manifesto: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week” or “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking”. Like Patton, Gove is charismatic, aggressive and steeped in the history of the battles he fights.
His forcefulness and unwavering commitment to education reform often cast those of us who believe in the need for great change in England’s schools (especially those of us from different political traditions) as Omar Bradleys…”
This post is cross-posted from Progress.
As the Major government limped to its destruction at the hands of New Labour in 1997, it played a few final cards in a desperate bid to cling on to the political hegemony established in 1979. There was the famous New Labour, New Danger poster, which only served to illustrate that, even with the eyes of an infernal horror from the lowest pits of hell, Tony Blair still looked a more plausible leader than any Tory. Policy-wise, perhaps attempting to recover from the spectacularly minimalist Cones Hotline-style gimmicks, there was to be ‘a grammar school in every town’, a truly audacious promise to reverse the greatest structural change in English education since the war.
It would be wrong to suggest that grammar schools are written into the DNA of the Conservative party – Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary who closed the most, often at the behest of Tory councils whose voters were suspicious their children weren’t going to get into them – but to be in favour of selective schooling, either state- or privately provided, is not a sin in the Tory party, while within Labour it is the Ultimate Heresy. Aside from the NHS, nothing unites a Labour party meeting faster than a denunciation of selective schooling, especially if it is paid for directly by parents, whereas the Tory party is led by the privately educated, and aspirations for selective schools are considered healthy, perhaps even praise-worthy.
Which makes it all the more interesting that the current Conservative government, despite the educational storm and fury of the past four years, has not only made no move to expand grammar schools, but has actually presided over the elimination of numerous private schools, which have entered the state-sector as academies. Though undoubtedly committed to traditional Tory educational values, Michael Gove has explicitly justified himself as seeking these things for the many, not for the few. Much of the upheaval in education has been a result of the education secretary’s determination that his curriculum and qualification convictions should be felt by every teenager, not merely by the privileged.
In such an educational environment, in which both the major parties are committed to the provision of excellent non-selective education for all young people, it seems very odd that the Sutton Trust should commit itself so forcefully to a new version of the old assisted places scheme. Yet last week, on the back of research illustrating that privately educated young people have access to higher earnings over the early career, the Trust essentially advocated exactly that: the state should fund needs-blind admissions to leading private schools for the most able pupils.
The idea that the answer to England’s educational woes (and they do exist) lies in providing golden tickets to a lucky few is profoundly misguided, and rests on some very faulty assumptions. The first is actually revealed in the report itself: although the earnings premium for private school pupils is trumpeted as being nigh on £200,000, taking account of social background and prior attainment it comes in at just over £60,000, or about £300 extra per month over the early working lifetime (26 to 42). That is not nothing, but it hardly seems enough to justify an outlay of several hundreds of millions on the Open Access plan.
Second, there can be little reason for assuming that the answer to a state/private earnings gap is to have thousands of young people abandon the one system for the other, rather than examining what about the private system causes its products to be more successful. Cristina Iannelli of the University of Edinburgh has recently produced research suggesting that the earnings differentials for pupils attending selective schools are a result of the curriculum on offer. In short, the academic curriculum is not only appropriate but also necessary for all children to have a chance of social mobility. It should not be necessary to send young people to fee-paying schools to deliver such curricula, it should be their right to access it in the schools their parents’ taxes pay for.
Open Access is an unnecessary way forward for England’s education system. Already, we have in place the tools by which the excellent practice found in many private schools can be shared with the state sector. Already, some state schools match and exceed the success of parts of the private sector. Some private schools are becoming academies, other leading public schools are sponsoring academies. The pioneering London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, where I will be working from September, is supported by Brighton College, Eton, Caterham and others, sharing best practice in both directions. Bridge-building, not lifeboats, should the foundation for stronger links between private schools and the state sector.
On Saturday, Policy Exchange held an excellent conference on the future shape of education policy after the next General Election. It really was a invigorating day. In a previous post, I have argued that those of us who favour on-going educational reform need to ensure that we are airing our differences as much as our agreements, and work to shift the debate onwards away from the more reactionary elements of the educational crowd, and I think PX managed that exceptionally well. In particular, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, a former education adviser to President Obama, was inspiring (Tom Bennett–who evidently has nowt but stone for a heart–mocks my rapture at Mike’s speech in his post about the event here, but I sense even he’d had his heart melted by the end of the day).
You can watch videos of all three keynote speeches (Johnston’s, Michael Gove’s and Tristram Hunt’s) as well as the panel sessions, following this link. The video it’ll bring you to first, though, is the one for the panel I was on (my speech is 19m-25m), about curriculum, assessment and workforce. My speech addressed a phrase Tristram had used earlier in the day: that of a “mature profession”. My contention is that teaching is not a mature profession: we lack the conviction in evidence, the ethical clarity and–largely–the responsible leadership to claim ourselves a proper profession; I hope the write more about this in due course.
The others on the panel all made excellent contributions, although if you have time for only one, click to 31m (runs to 39m) and watch Tim Oates – a genuinely wise discourse on how the education research community in England is not giving policy-makers what they need to create excellent policy; turns some key issues on it’s head and is well worth the time.
p.s. Tim Oates was also responsible for the finest and most devastating heckle in the history of education policy: when the National Secretary of the Anti-Academies Alliance claimed in the final panel session there were no private schools in Finland, Tim pointed out that this wasn’t true, but it was illegal to charge for private schools in Finland, so essentially the country has a voucher system. “Less than 1% of schools,” came the disdainful reply. “37% in the Helsinki area,” came the devastating response.
I’ve written a piece for TES in response to criticisms of my appearance on Newsnight last week. You can find the whole article here: http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/04/28/39-it-is-a-simple-fact-the-far-left-run-the-nut-39.aspx
You can watch the piece that led into the original Newsnight debate here:
And my appearance discussing the piece here:
Today is strike day. Many of my colleagues have already made the decision to go on strike and are, I suspect, having a nice lie-in right now. Good for them – it is their right to strike, and they’ve received a clear strike call from their union.
But I’ve argued for a long time that the NUT’s campaign against, well, everything in education, is going absolutely nowhere, so I am sad that teachers up and down the land are today losing a day’s pay purely so their leadership can pose as effective trade unionists, when the reality is they lost this battle long ago. Part of the problem is the sheer lack of imagination displayed by the NUT Exec: another strike? What really? Are there no other campaigning tools you can think of? The world has erupted in single-issue campaigns and even revolutions over the last 20 years, all running with new and different ways of getting messages across, and yet the NUT still thinks “all out” is the right tool for every job,
This kind of thinking, especially from people who will happily chant the mantra that school organisation is “stuck in the mode of the industrial 19th Century”, is deeply peculiar, because nothing is more stuck in Britain’s faded industrial past than strike action from public sector unions.
In industrial circumstances the threat and meaning of a strike is absolutely crystal clear: we do the work that makes the money; we don’t work, there is no money. Private sector employers can find various ways to hold out against this, and ultimately there is always the Mutually Assured Destruction threat (“if there’s no money for long enough, they’ll be no company and then there’s no money forever”), but the cause and effect relationship is obvious.
That is not the case in teaching – there’s no profit being made, so the strike is an indirect attack: parents are inconvenienced by the need to keep kids home (and kids obviously lose a day’s education). To make this in any way effective as a tactic, the response of the parents is the crucial battleground. In local or individual school strikes, this can be highly effective: headteachers are placed in an extremely awkward position if they have to write home to parents saying that actions they, the Headteacher, has taken, have driven out on strike the teachers that the rest of the year the Head praises to the skies. A personal washing of dirty laundry in public is unpleasant and favours dispute resolution.
None of this applies in the case of a national strike. In the first case, the battle is not between your child’s teacher and your child’s Headteacher, it is between teacher trade-unions and an elected politician; much more impersonal, and between people much less trusted by the populace at large. The terms of battle are entirely different, the access to (and respect available in) the media are profoundly imbalanced and the audience is not simply parents concerned about their children, but citizens and tax-payers weighing up who is managing the economy well and capable of solving the country’s problems. In such a battle, any government–even an unpopular government–can hold out for as long as it is prepared to: after all, it is the teachers who are shutting the schools, not the government. Government looks responsible and sensible so long as it even suggests it it open to talks, the unions look angry and exploitative, especially if, as is the case with this strike, there is a fatal lack of clarity about what it is actually about (although attempts to explain it is about pensions are, as ever, likely to go down like a lead balloon with a populace who couldn’t buy for love nor money a pension half as good as that of teachers).
Individual and local strike action can work (whether it is the most effective and sensible tactic is another issue) but it is increasingly obvious that national strike action by teachers is fundamentally flawed: it not only fails to deliver its objectives, but every time it gives government a chance to denounce unions as irresponsible and unrealistic it makes the tool ever less useful in future.
Today thousands of teachers are missing a day’s pay, thousands of students are missing a day’s school, and thousands of parents are missing a day’s work, which is all cases many can ill-afford, and the sum result will be negligible. The vanity and pride of the NUT Exec has led its members into a campaigning cul-de-sac. The vital need for stronger and better professional leadership for teachers has never been clearer.