Monday, 7 September 2015

Turmoil doesn't help our teachers to do their jobs - my Catholic Universe column

….And relax!

The summer has ended and the children have gone back to school. After six extraordinarily long weeks parents and grandparents no longer are having to think about how to entertain young minds day after day.

We can all stop rubbing our foreheads and screaming ‘How much?’ every time they open their mouths.

It’s the one time of year when we give thanks for teachers. Just how do they manage to cope with thirty of them all year round?

Of course I exaggerate slightly. The vast majority of us have had a lovely summer with our children but it is time now for the hard work to begin once more and we are genuinely grateful for the amazing job our schools do with our children in helping them to become fully rounded young adults.

Teachers will tell you it is lovely when they get letters from parents at the end of the year expressing gratitude for how their children have come on. It is perhaps now though at the end of the summer when we should say thanks because undoubtedly it’s the best time when we can truly understand the magnitude of the job educators have ahead of them.

Teaching has been a tough job for a very long time. As someone who has worked in the public, private and voluntary sectors during my career, and as someone who now works in education, I can honestly say it is one of the hardest jobs out there.

Unless you have actually experienced it can any of us truly know what it is like to handle a class of 30, many of whom may have behavioural or pastoral issues, whilst trying to differentiate work suitable for each of them and making sure every single one is continually challenged?

Do many of us have the slightest idea how much time is put into planning schemes of work, lessons, marking and accurate assessment?

The truth is of course, and we have all heard this before, teaching isn’t a job but a vocation. These days the teachers who see it as anything less are the ones that aren’t teachers for very much longer.
The world is constantly changing and educators fully accept this realising the need for what things and crucially how they are taught need to reflect Britain’s global position at any given time. But to give of their very best teachers, and just as importantly head teachers and governors, really do need a culture of organic, gradual change not the significant steps that we have seen over the past five years.

Like him or loathe him Michael Gove had a transformative effect on education. There is every likelihood that he will remembered for both good and bad long after this government has left office.

His time as Secretary of State for Education witnessed the advent of free schools and the widespread formation of academies, it saw the introduction of performance related pay for teachers and the contradiction of more freedom for heads to decide what children should learn whilst prescribing that teachers should teach more traditional subjects.

Everyone thought that when Mr Gove was effectively sacked for being too divisive that the new Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, would seek to be much more consensual. Educators hoped that after a period of turmoil Mrs Morgan would be the steady hand that was needed to reassure teachers and undoubtedly more importantly allow time for change to bed in.

Many commentators, very unkindly in my opinion, suggested pre-election that rather than being a steady hand Mrs Morgan was indeed an ineffective one and that she would be gone shortly after May 7th. It certainly seems that that prediction was wrong it also seems that the assertion of being the captain of organic change may be as well.

Very seldom will a minister be the first person to suggest any change of policy that they are considering. They understand that if a change they are suggesting falls flat on its face in the media and the wider public that they look very silly indeed. It is therefore far more preferable to allow a civil servant or, for the more extreme ideas, a think-tank to ‘float a balloon’ and see if it gets shot down.

It is always worth keeping an eye out for what sources ‘close to government’ are saying in the press. It’s amazing how often what they say ends up as policy. You may well have not noticed but there is a raft of trial balloon ideas in the media right now.

In the past few days many newspapers have reported on the ‘right of centre’ think-tank Policy Exchange’s idea to fine secondary schools up to £500 per pupil for those who don’t achieve at least a GCSE Grade C in English and Maths. The fine would in theory at least be forwarded to Further Education colleges who at 16 become responsible for attempts to get young people up to a decent academic standard.

Of course Further Education needs to be properly compensated for its new responsibilities but what would the impact of such a fine be to schools, all too often in highly deprived areas, with lower than average pass rates?

At the same time as Policy Exchange have been talking about their ideas the DfE’s new ‘behaviour tsar’ has been expressing his belief that schools are no place for iPads. In comments reported by The Sunday Times Tom Bennett, head of a working party to guide teachers on improving conduct in class said ‘There is absolutely no research evidence that giving kids technology helps them learn.’ Could we be about to see a policy change which will be very costly to those many schools who have indeed invested heavily in the latest IT because students find learning with them more engaging?

When an idea is perhaps a little less contentious the Secretary of State can let a junior minister free with it. The schools minister Nick Gibb has gone on record this week suggesting that admissions policies, for primary schools at least, are likely to be amended to give preference to siblings. On the face of it there is very little room for contention with such a suggestion but who can forget that legally at least academies are their own admissions authorities, setting their own criteria, and just what will the effect be on faith schools? Will we see Catholic children rejected in order to make room for siblings of non-Catholic pupils?

It seems that step change is a long way from being temporarily halted let alone finished in education and through all of this teachers carry on. Or maybe they don’t?

As we see our schools open for the new term perhaps the most disturbing story has been saved for last.

There is an emerging chronic shortage of teachers and people willing to become them. The Observer reported on government figures suggesting a 10% shortfall in teacher trainees with recruitment for some subjects being more than 50% down on what is needed. English is 12% below the necessary numbers of teacher trainees, Maths is 11%.

The stark facts were stated by Professor John Howson who works on the Government’s teacher supply modelling when he said ‘Without drastic action, more head teachers will be forced to employ staff not qualified in their subjects or for the age group they are teaching, or simply remove subjects from the curriculum.’

It’s been a tough time for the teaching profession and it’s not looking likely that it will be getting easier anytime soon. At the start of the year maybe we should be thanking those wonderful people who are so dedicated to our children?


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