The Future of Teaching @EdnFoundation #PolicyFutures Keynote

Ed Foundation

This is the prepared text of a talk I gave at an Education Foundation Policy Futures event, alongside Angela McFarlane from the College of Teachers, Peter Kent from ASCL and Summer Turner.  With thanks to Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham for inviting me.  (It didn’t come out exactly like this…but close enough!)

The Future of Teaching:

I’m extremely optimistic about the future of teaching.  It feels to me that we are in the process of emerging from a very dark period….. but the light is definitely at the end of the tunnel.  I can see a brilliant future……. but, we’re not there yet.

In organising my thoughts for this event, I’ve been considering the opposing forces that we’re experiencing…the positive forces that are propelling us upwards; the negative forces that hold us back, drag us down….  The negative forces are still there; they are strong but the positive forces are winning… which is why I’m optimistic.

Let’s look at the dark side….Why have we been in a tunnel?


10+ years of Teacher bashing…..of  top-down control…… an extraordinarily powerful and pervasive accountability system.

The language of Outstanding and RI.  Teachers being labelled a ‘1’ or a ‘3’ – has been extraordinary and utterly wrong and misguided.  This has dominated discourse for years and years… shifting the mindset of a generation of teachers to consider our task to be to meet externally imposed standards…

Given how flawed the notion of grading is, it’s incredible really that it’s taken so long to challenge the Wizard of Oz façade that is an Ofsted Judgement.  Still now, with OfSTED having ditched grading, many schools use extraordinary accountability measures – still grading lessons, grading books, marking and so on.  It’s as if we’ve lost the capacity to make qualitative judgements.

Performance Targets

The exam system has been hijacked/ corrupted by intense and intensely misguided emphasis on a narrow set of performance measures…  we’ve been forced down a path where we only value what can be measured and shown to be adding value by one spurious data trick or another.

Ever since the late Chris Woodhead’s ’30,000 bad teachers’ or Ed Balls’ floor targets – not to mention Sir Michael Wilshaw’s inability to sound positive about teachers, Michael Gove’s Blob and Nicky Morgan’s gun to head pronouncements on coasting schools  – the main political tool to lever up standards has been to threaten us.  Do better OR ELSE.  Politicians don’t know how to improve schools so this is what they resort to.

For 10 years of more, schools have put as much energy into the tactics of exam preparation as they have into teaching better….  Choosing the right syllabus, multiple entry, controlled assessment drills and so on.  For years, instead of talking about pedagogy, Heads have been comparing notes about exam tactics and OfSTED preparation.

To me, PRP – linked to lesson grades and examination pass rates  – and this obsessive chasing of advantage in the exam system – These are the forces of darkness.  (Because they haven’t left us with a better educated population; not really.) Anyone who things PRP etc ‘work’ is deluded. I don’t mean that rudely; I mean it literally.

For some teachers, this is all they’ve known.  A profession where you need to make a big effort  trying to look better than you really are… tarting things up… out of FEAR.  It’s not only tiresome; it’s a mistake. The gun-to-head rhetoric has seeped into our sub-culture – like mines from an old-battle field, it will take years to clear.

…I know from the messages and emails I get that there are still plenty of teachers who inhabit this world…..


Finally, on the Dark Side, there has been an obsession with structures…carving up the landscape of schooling, teacher training routes and so on.  I don’t know if teachers have been affected directly but the whole emphasis on academisation has been an almighty distraction for school leaders.

SO –  why am I optimistic?

Despite the negative forces, 0ver the last few years, there has been a slow but definite awakening….

1. There is EVIDENCE.  There is a growing understanding that teaching is complicated; that there is no one correct way to teach…. But still, that some things work better than others….. There’s an emerging consensus around the need for Pedagogical Content Knowledge alongside good subject knowledge.  There is a body of wisdom for teachers to acquire. There is a new environment where academic research has a much higher level of penetration into mainstream discourse within schools.  This was simply absent in the first 15 years of my career.

From Wiliam….. Inside the Black Box to Hattie, Dweck, Willingham, Robert Bjork….the EEF toolkit, Professor Rob Coe: Sutton Trust… What makes great teaching?….these ideas are the currency of educational discourse in staffrooms across the country. Not everywhere –but it’s a growing trend. Guy Claxton and Ken Robinson are more ‘marmite’ (love them or hate them) but at least their ideas are increasingly discussed and explored, not simply accepted at face value.

This is exciting. There’s a growing confidence that this is OUR domain – not the government’s. (They don’t get it – which is ok because if they thought they did, they’d stuff it up anyway.)

2. OfSTED has changed its position radically in the last 18 months:

The evidence that judging lessons is flawed has led to the OfSTED Oz curtain being pulled back.  Lesson grading is and ALWAYS WAS a house of cards…. It’s simply bad science that  has now been exposed.

There are no more graded lessons. (Not that half the schools in the country have noticed….!!!)

Sir MW keeps having to restate that THERE IS NO PREFERED TEACHING STYLE…. Even though some SLTs around the country haven’t realised yet.

We are being allowed to embrace a new dawn – where teaching is evaluated in the round; where our professional judgement is called upon….This is a very significant shift. We’re ripping up the OfSTED checklists and thinking for ourselves.

My most tweeted tweet – still does the rounds over two years later:   If there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class..what would you choose to do to make it GREAT? Do that anyway…

– this is no longer a radical plea. It’s actually a real direction of travel. Teachers deciding what standards are and using their professional judgement.

3. National Curriculum Levels have gone… and the exam system has been re-set

I was going to say this is a God-send.  But since Michael Gove is responsible, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea!!  It’s his most significant legacy in my view.

Because of changes to the exam system, we are about to enter a new era when the only game in town is pedagogy and a focus on student attitudes to learning.  I welcome that, even though it’s tough. Stability in the exam system will mean that teachers have to focus on PCK, – no easy wins. Only real wins. That’s healthy – albeit very challenging.

Removing NC levels has unleashed a wave of discussion and debate about the nature of assessment… This is great. It’s reprofessionalising us, re-skilling us.    It’s only a threat to people who are so used to being told what to do and are lost without external direction.

 4. Recognition of the role of CPD is at an all time high.

We now recognise that professional learning is at the very core of school improvement

There is evidence about the most effective forms of CPD….The recent (superb) Teacher Development Trust / CUREE paper….sets this out clearly.  There are models of excellent practice….such as Dylan Wiliam’s TLC model and other variants.

(I’ve always loved Dylan Wiliam’s suggestion that ‘teachers should work AS a team; not just IN a team’….sharing responsibility for the outcomes of the children in their area..  )

 5. There is also a slow awakening to the value of a high trust culture within in schools

All the schools with intense PRP, graded lessons, top-down systems…. Are getting it wrong.  In the market for teachers,  I think these schools will lose out.  This model is bankrupt and I know more and more schools that are tearing down their out-moded appraisal policies.  It’s early days… but it’s happening.

6. There is a massive ground-swell of profession led activity;

Social media, teachmeets, conferences, bloggers with reach and influence, school-university partnerships, research projects, the Nat Bacc Trust, Research Ed, Northern Rocks, National Teacher Enquiry Network…. And so on.

In the last three years, my professional world has exploded.  It used to be tiny and constrained; now it is wide open.  That is the direction of travel.

What will the future bring??

a) Professional capital

Some of the best ideas in this area are found in  Professional Capital by Hargreaves and Fullan

Professional capital = human, social, decisional

As a profession and community of school leaders, we’re starting to embrace this fully; We can only improve schools by investing in professional capital.

b) Multiple high quality Routes into teaching

Unqualified? Ok to begin with – but not in the long term.

As I’ve said before, if we’re serious about a world-class system we need to be serious about the quality of teacher training and qualifications. On the job training isn’t enough.  Academic exploration of teaching in theory is certainly not enough.  It’s hard to imagine England having a world-leading education system in 10 years time if we’re not carving out a route to high value teacher qualifications as a requirement for all.

c) Built-in CPD time:

A teacher’s week will have routine time for CPD:  This isn’t snatched; borrowed; scraped together. It is built-in. Teachers working together to share ideas, to share their learning, share decisions, plan learning, review assessments and so on.  Schools are already doing this; it needs to become the norm.

d) Teachers as Curriculum Designers:  “Design is a form of creativity that suggests deliberate, planned innovation built on a foundation of research-informed professional wisdom.”  That’s me summing up the ideas in the RSA’s Licensed to Create publication.

We go into action armed with knowledge; but we use our (evidence-informed) judgement to respond.

e) Teachers as research-engaged:

Teachers and researchers are in continuous communication; every classroom is a laboratory.  A typical teacher puts in routine time to check the wires for updates; routine time is given to debate the findings and to plan interventions and changes to practice

f) High Trust Working Environments; collective accountability…. communities of professionals working collaboratively. There is nothing soft about this.

Hopefully the College of Teaching will fuel some of this – as will the teachers’ unions and professional associations.

I’ve been critical of unions over the years for focusing too much on conditions and workload. But actually they’ve achieved a great deal.  Teaching has come a long way.  Rarely cover, for example, is a triumph of common sense.  But I’d still like to see stronger collective action behind talking up the profession.

Despite the challenges we’ve faced and the battering we’ve been given….it’s still, to my mind, the most significant and rewarding line of work I can think of.   If we carry on cutting away the ballast of FEAR and accountability pressure, we’ll create a professional environment that will draw in the best recruits…and, crucially, retain them.

Teaching will be the badge of honour for all graduates to wear proudly.  No-one is ‘just a teacher’.  Not in my book.  And I’m optimistic about the future;  despite the forces of darkness, we are definitely winning.


  1. Well, I’d have applauded. What a great run-though of our current position. As a 21st century student I saw how my teachers were restrained by what you capture as ‘the dark side’ and just being witness to that put me right off teaching in our current school system. Thankfully, there are a million other ways to teach outside of schools, but I’m so happy that conversations are happening now about education and people and schools. These are exciting times.

    The blogosphere in particular is wide-open for connections and conversations… there’s no barrier to entry, no central committee, it’s personal CPD, person-to-person networking. What if the phases are: central gvmt control phase, into a school led phase then, and this is further into the future (I talked with Andrew Carter about this at the @EducationFest) …into a teacher led phase where teachers are held by their own reputation, qualified by network endorsements that open mentioning relationships, free to work beyond national boundaries, with any teacher free to self-select as leader on any project they create e.t.c.

    For sure we’re in a phased system and this vision ahead of where we’re at. Getting carried away! I’m just so happy that things aren’t staying static in the phase I experienced as a student, I knew we were all too smart for a centrally control system 🙂


      • I’m not sure if technology is transforming anything; it only opens up connections and amplifies opportunity for what has always been there between teachers and learners. Hmmm…. OK, but, if we use technology as a crutch rather than a springboard, then we do give it the power to transform us and our relationships with others.


  2. I am interested in the ideas expressed above. As a teacher and middle manager I would like an opportunity to be involved with your organisation.


  3. Thanks Tom. Professional capital is a new term for me; I like it.

    In fact I really like all your optimism. Your points put all the most pertinent topics and opportunities in one document. However, I have a worry. Will all these great liberties, great opportunities for a pluralst approach to teaching also allow poor teaching to be called – a different approach? And, will I become slightly reticent to even think children might not be getting a really good deal at school for fear of not understanding a teachers ‘different approach’?

    In fact Tom, I’ve many questions and I’d love to know what you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I began teaching in 1973 so reading this blog is wonderful since it reflects the dark depressive view outlined is so reflective of so many 40 years ago. The late sixties and early seventies saw huge changes in circumstances for teachers as most secondary teachers had to adjust to COMPREHENSIVE teaching. I entered the profession when doom and gloom were the norm, in fact almost compulsory. 40 years later, although there has been remarkably little change overall (we still have some Grammar schools, academia and written exams still seem to be the priority) I feel much more optimistic than ever. (both my daughters are now teachers!) -WHY?
    There is now so much international evidence that our children need a good development in key skills (I believe 8) to have good life chances and mental health in the 21st century that persisting with the Victorian concept that academic achievement via written exams is clearly flawed. Finally, there is an real understanding of HOW we learn and WHAT we need to learn that education and schools must learn from Finland and other successful schools/societies that change is inevitable. IF only I was 40 years younger!


  5. Tom, thanks for this blog. Lots to hope – will the politicians be able to keep their ideological paws off the system … let’s hope so for just long enough.

    I am one of the “blob” and you touch upon the relationship between education faculties, universities and schools, then importance of research informed and research participation and the quality of CPD. My concern is that the politicos have weaker this relationship considerable over the last 5 years or so with the emphasis taking teacher education into school led directions and the diminution of the PGCE and other academic arenas.

    I agree that teacher education need to be more than theory – it has been for a long time but the interplay between pedagogy and practice is key and needs to developed more systematically, seriously and to be funded. I would like to see a lobby moving towards a full masters level profession as we see in other places. I have written more about this here: and here


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