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Monthly Archives: January 2016

Marking – In Defence of SLT

OFSTED has a problem with its image problem. Acutely aware of its disastrously low standing within the profession of which it is supposed to be the guardian, it has sought to transform its austere and inward-facing image into that of an open and responsive organisation capable of addressing the concerns of ordinary teachers about the quality of its operation and the nature of its impact. It was from here that OFSTED – employing new opportunities afforded through social media to engage in dialogue directly with teachers – has set about trying to slay some of what it calls the ‘myths’ associated with its name and which wreak havoc throughout the education system. Which, so far as any recognition that the existence of OFSTED has indeed wrought havoc throughout the education system can be considered progress, is something to be welcomed.
The latest clarifications surrounding marking have been particularly well received. Teachers, some of them living at the sharp edge of ridiculous marking policies, see OFSTED explicitly stating they are not looking for what is contained in said ridiculous marking policies and immediately sense that OFSTED is on their side against a capricious or at best ignorant SLT. Indeed, for SLT to persist with such policies, even after OFSTED have made such clarifications, further fuels the fires of injustice – for many, OFSTED are potential allies against a common foe.
And yet the hard fact is that many schools do indeed continue with ridiculous marking policies. And many teachers do feel exasperated. For all that OFSTED might try to paint themselves as blameless in this, there nonetheless still exists so much poor school policy being peddled under the guise of ‘what OFSTED want’. The busting of myths, in other words, is having limited impact.
But to defend SLT members for a moment here, one can perfectly understand why this might be*. After all, it is all well and good publishing a list of things you are not looking for – but if the things you explicitly declare you are looking for are most easily evidenced through those things you claim you are not looking for, then the incentives for such practices to remain.
To take the hot button issue of marking, one might welcome the clarification that ‘there is no particular expectation about seeing written records from oral feedback.’ But if this is followed by the demand that there is evidence a) student understands that feedback, b) has acted upon it, and c) evidence that it has made an impact on their learning, then guess what school leadership teams might just be inclined to suggest we do?
In short, if you say ‘oh we don’t need to see X, just Y and Z’, whilst the easiest way to evidence Y and Z is through X, then of course schools will keep pushing X, whatever ‘myth-busting’ documents teachers wearily wave in front of their leadership.
And who can blame SLT for that? The reality is that inspections are short and there is a lot to fit in. Inspectors need to see hard evidence. Written records and feedback is hard evidence. And however much OFSTED protest their innocence, with Therouxian levels of faux-naivety, inspectors can nonetheless conveniently have their evidence box ticked by precisely that which OFSTED are so clearly at pains to suggest there is ‘no particular expectation’ to see.
With the stakes so high, and the quality of inspection teams so variable, and consistency so lacking, and the chances of appeal so non-existent, and the potential impact on careers, schools and the local community so harmful… well, would you take the chance?
This is not to wave through the weak-kneed leadership teams who knowingly implement the impossible at the cost of the health and sanity of their colleagues: the ridiculous and wrong-headed marking policies one can find in so many of our schools are a just cause for resentment. I’m just not so sure we can so easily transfer the blame away from OFSTED for this, and dump it all so squarely on to the shoulders of leadership teams. The incentives in the system are perverse – it should come as no surprise that the policies adopted to meet them are likewise. A perfectly rational desire for (institutional) self-preservation would have it so.
A final comment. It should be noted that those schools graded ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ have more latitude in being magnanimous with their marking policies. I wish they would keep this in mind when proclaiming to the rest of the world how else it could be done. It is no surprise that schools in the lower grade categories implement such onerous policies upon their staff (further reinforcing that cycle which really they need to break.) After all, at the very least they need to show that Something Is Being Done.  Yet those at the top end, with consistently strong results and the kind of intake that almost locks in the top category grades (hot air about coasting schools notwithstanding) can experiment with different strategies and a more imaginative marking approach that will be tolerated by inspection teams so long as positive results keep landing on the doormat each August.
Those at the bottom simply do not have that freedom. And in fairness it might be considered reckless to do so: should they try, then they immediately hand OFSTED a great big stick to hit them with should their results fail to do anything other than transform overnight.
Which is interesting. Because when one considers the geographic and socio-economic disparities amongst those grade categories, then yet another perspective emerges to that evolving debate about the challenges faced by schools in different locales, and ways in which education policy, and no less the inspection framework, might be neglecting or indeed hindering their progress.
*for clarity, I am not a member of a school leadership or management team. Just an ‘umble teach.

The Dignity of Being a Teacher

From Labour Teachers:

The reality of being a teacher is very different from what one supposes when first reflecting on whether to enter the profession. For here, giddy notions of broadening horizons and expanding minds abound; the Grind, which we all know so well, does not tend to feature. We think we’re going to change the world, or at least the lives of those who come before us. Which might make us egotists, but at least it gets the value of a good education about right.

Of course, we know the reality is different. Retention rates tell us so, whilst recruitment rates might just mean that the message is starting to filter through. There are many explanations for this, but roughly speaking three key issues seem to present themselves – poor management, poor behaviour, and finally (and most commonly) excess workload.

As I have explored elsewhere, a focus on workload as the core issue for our stressed-out and anxious workforce is not entirely wrong, but it might not be the entire picture either. After all, plenty of other professions have serious workload issues but do not have the same retention issues that teaching has. Looking at meaning and value in work, and the absence thereof, can perhaps provide one further explanation for why this should be so.

The relationship between workload, responsibility and control is long established – it is no surprise that those at the bottom of the ladder, with the least control, tend to suffer most acutely from the stress/anxiety problem. Having too much to do is one thing; not having the power or the control to be able to do what you are asked to do is quite another. The rise of managerialism in our schools has often lead to a centralised, command-and-control approach to school leadership – it is not uncommon for teachers to be given responsibility for a predicament, without any of the control which might allow them to improve the situation. Here, the feeling of powerlessness, indeed of uselessness, proliferates.

But not only that. One thing that might strike those who enter teaching later than has become the norm is how little teachers are actually able to do. Not in terms of quantity of work, which is huge, but of meaningful responsibility. As hard as excess workload might be, one wonders if it is more acute when placed alongside other feelings, in particular the feeling of being underused and undervalued, which is the result of our shaping teaching into a low-control profession.

Teaching, in many ways, can be infantilising to those who thought it would be the very opposite – and all the more so to those who have experienced other career paths where this was not the case. Thus the chaffing juxtaposition between that person who entered teaching full of romantic ideals of self-agency and fulfilment, and the one grinding it out three years later – the feeling one has something to contribute runs up against the reality of not feeling like one is being allowed to meaningfully contribute. As such, teachers are increasingly the passive agents in the classroom – they deliver processes and follow systems over which they have little control or say, whilst those things that define who we are, that shape the unique contribution we could offer, rarely get space in our busy schedule.

And this is hard. Feeling underused makes that mountain of work appear all the more insurmountable. And the feeling of being undervalued which inevitably follows probably makes us all rather more sensitive than we should be. One wonders if this lack of meaning-making and value, intertwined as it is with a sense of self-worth, is what drives the recent focus on pedagogy and the fashion for turning teaching into a science – are the increasingly volatile debates over pedagogy symptomatic of the fact that this is the last place where teachers have some element of free agency? If so, one can understand why our new definitions of professionalism have come to be located there.
In other words, teachers are grasping for control, and pedagogy is (largely) the only place where we still have a trace of it – non-conformism here thus becomes an assault on our professionalism and is perhaps behind the desire to submit so much of what happens in the classroom to the demands of evidence and research. One cannot help but feel that relegating teacher judgement, skill and experience to the declarations of research journals doesn’t end up committing the same assault on the dignity of the profession it originally sought to counter.

As such, when we talk about the root cause of anxiety and stress in the profession, perhaps we need to unpack that ‘workload’ section a bit, and move understanding away from solely volume-based models of workload and toward terms like dignity, meaning and value of work. Which is a tad more ambitious than just having to write shorter reports or attend fewer meetings, but which might also provide a means of articulating why quite so many feel quite so disempowered in a profession which should, in theory at least, demand rather a lot more of us.