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Changing the Conversation

As it is the summer holidays for us teachers, I’ve managed to catch up on some reading, and in particular some of the excellent stuff being produced by various think-tanks and their associated academics. Not all, I should add, but enough to be able to severely pare down my favourites bar and those ‘Likes’ on Twitter that have been accumulating for some months now. Useful as this has been (it really has), a few things kept cropping up that lead me to think about what I think would help shape new perspectives in education policy discussion. There is always risk here – it can certainly come across as telling cleverer folk than oneself how to suck eggs – but it is not intended that way; more that I wonder if policy discussion can sometimes become a bit singular in its approaches, and might occasionally need a gentle reminder to consider others. Anyway, here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Talk more about students and less about teachers. Ultimately, it is the children who are underachieving. Or indeed, being successful. Too often we overplay the significance of the teacher in this. Teachers are of course important, vital even, and I can be as boisterous as any in reasserting that fact. However, the move toward technocracy and the rise of the celebrity teacher is injurious. Not only has excess focus on the teacher created a perverse accountability scheme which makes teachers responsible for things well outside of their control, it has also served to downplay and sometimes outright ignore those wider issues – primarily social and/or economic – that inhibit educational success. The chest-beating idealism of the those who will insist every child can be dragged into academic success if only our teachers were better provides a useful political narrative, but it ignores one important caveat – it’s rubbish. More than anything else, the educational achievement of parents is the key signifier. Throw in stability of home life and poverty, and you have a mix that serves to limit educational success more than any other factor. Of course some can overcome this, and do – bell-curve distribution is a bit like that. But most don’t. Our focus, then, must take into account that contextual detail. This might help us approach the question of educational underachievement from a more profitable perspective – the root of educational underachievement in the North, for example, is not simply that all northern teachers are rubbish. If that explanation is the best we have to go to, then that disadvantage will remain for a long time to come.
  2. Avoid the ‘Outstanding Teacher’ fallacy, which is to think that to simply have more Outstanding Teachers is sufficient, and that it is possible to simply have more Outstanding Teachers, enough indeed to turn around a whole system. It is very easy to say and delivers nice padding for speeches, but it is not where our principal challenge lies. Truth is, there is no special breed of people called ‘Outstanding Teachers’ and, even if there were, there wouldn’t be anywhere near enough of them to solve our system-wide problems. Life is messier than that, and outstanding practice (and otherwise) is a sliding scale which we all move up and down, the more/less so dependent on the school context, quality of leadership and myriad other factors. Transforming and transformative education is of course driven by recruiting and keeping good teachers – but what we really need is to think of how we best empower and enable the ‘ordinary teachers’, that being what the vast majority of those toiling away in the education system are (I blogged on this here). We might use a footballing analogy here: a manager might long for that one special player who can produce that ‘moment of magic’, but he is unlikely to then demand 11 of them. And even if that ideal were possible, it wouldn’t be scale-able across a whole system – instead we must create an environment where all can perform; for every Mahrez, there are a handful of Danny Simpsons and Robert Huths whom we also need to perform. Long-term sustainability and whole-system improvement demands that we instead focus our efforts how to create the conditions for that success, rather than over-concentrating on unearthing diamonds (many of whom might leave the profession anyway).
  3. The Intangibles. Not easy, of course, because they are, well, intangible. However, bracketing this out of our conversations about schools and school improvement is to declare our analyses spiritually impoverished, neglectful of the beauty and soul that comprises an excellent education. In other words, it is to declare our analyses insufficient. Sometimes, then, we need to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and recognise the importance of those things which cannot be easily measured. In schools this can be a huge variety of factors, some of them hyperlocal, others more systemic, but all of which nonetheless need parsing. A small example: rural and provincial schools often have serious difficulty in providing their students with access to high culture. This is important. This has an impact. And yet it too rarely features in discussion about raising standards. It should do. It has to.
  4. Tempting as it might be, don’t build a case around data from Ofsted. The validity of their gradings is little trusted in the profession, not least because it too often contradicts our own experiences of the reality on the ground (we all know a school whose intake locks in the highest Ofsted grades, but whose practice and behaviour we know to be less impressive than the allegedly poor school down the road). In addition, anomalies are copious – note the confusing discrepancy between primaries and secondaries in the North-East, for example, an inconsistency that ought to lead one to wonder whether our accountability systems are quite the objective process they claim themselves to be (a point of order Sir Michael Wilshaw chose to acknowledge but not pursue in his speech on northern education). Indeed, Ofsted’s incoming director has shown herself open to abolishing the Outstanding grade, both for reasons of reliability (testing has suggested both ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Inadequate’ grading has the whiff of the arbitrary) and because of the impact it has on the system, including a concern that there is a system-bias against disadvantaged schools in grading. Thus, proceeding from statistics about how many Outstanding schools there in London compared to the North-West is likely to fall flat.


  1. Agree on all of the above.
    On 2. David Sally and Chris Anderson’s theory on “weak-link” and “strong-link” players in football (see their book, The Numbers Game). Better players, better teachers, also encourage and inspire the rest to raise their game.

    The transformation of London schools is also heralded as THE argument for strong leadership, superstar headteachers, etc. Serious question, doesn’t the answer really lie in seismic demographic shifts? Plus, re-entry of middle class families into state system, maybe?


  2. julietgreen says:

    Yes. I would point out that it’s the educational achievement of the biological (emphasis) parents which is the strongest indicator of pupils’ attainment. It’s a touchy point, but it shouldn’t matter. You hint at in 3, but don’t quite get specific on the tension between attainment and education. We’re very much focused on the former at the moment and those who warned of the narrowing effect on the curriculum were correct. But the deeper issue is this: we know that not all pupils will be ‘high-attainers’ (although we should never assume anything about any specific pupil) but any pupil can become highly educated. The two things are not the same. As an outsider, who was educated in a different country prior to age 16, I’m bemused at the idea of reintroduction of the grammars. We had no such thing and instead had systems which were less about time-specific attainment and more to do with ensuring our education. I was always appreciative of my opportunities and used to talk to my father about what it had been like when he was at school and how ridiculous it was before they got rid of the 11+. He had failed to pass it (through lack of interest?) and had then been ‘top of class’ in everything until he’d gotten fed up and left to work at the age of 14. He was extremely successful in his working life (commercial artist, RAF, police officer, company lawyer) and a life-long learner. It was just as well that he hadn’t been herded into the grammar school system. It’s a very narrow view of education.


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