The dominant issue in delivering a great education to all young people in a school or college is to ensure that they are being taught well, by someone with the confidence, knowledge and skills required, relevant to the school/college context, in every lesson. Recruiting, retaining and developing great teachers should be a total frontline priority. It already is for Headteachers; I’m less sure about governments.
Imagine that the quality of teaching is a product of three factors: Q=XYZ.
- X= Professional knowledge: Subject knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge
- Y = Personal qualities – assertiveness, presence, ability to form relationships, capacity to demand rigour, set standards.
- Z = Experience: confidence; informed wisdom.
(Non-linear scales – and let’s not be too literal!)
All teachers have a range of strengths in each area; better teachers have a stronger overall combination; improving as a teacher might involve a focus on one particular factor – and all teachers can improve. Embedded in this is the distinction between expertise and experience. Some people have a low Z but compensate with a bigger Y. Increasing Z will usually, in turn, improve both X and Y.
The difference it makes when you have confident, knowledgeable staff is massive – as any Headteacher or student knows. Ideally you want a balance of experienced and expert staff leading and supporting those who are in the early stages of their careers, learning the craft. Where a gap is being filled by someone who is less than ideal, everything is harder. Where Y is strong, you can work hard to support someone to improve X as their Z increases. Where Y and Z are very low, no amount of X can fully compensate so you need to work doubly hard. The key is to have strong professional development processes in place that help to secure these improvements.
At school level imagine that the quality of teaching as a whole is represented by the temperature in a water tank. The temperature will depend on:
a) the net flow of hot water into the system compared to the flow out.
b) the effectiveness of the internal heating mechanism.
To increase the temperature in the tank, which is your goal, you have to:
- Create conditions that allow hotter water to enter the system to begin with (to recruit the strongest recruits you can)
- Minimise how much hot water leaves the system (reduce the number of good teachers who leave)
- Maximise the effectiveness of the heating system: this, in turn, is a product of the quality of the exchange mechanism and the time the incoming water spends in contact with it. (ie running effective professional development).
The same applies to the education system as whole – and I don’t think this gets nearly enough attention.
In order to increase factor Z we need teachers to stay in the system; we need to reduce the flow of good teachers out of the system. Creating the conditions that do that would also help to increase the inward flow of high calibre recruits; to raise the quality of the teaching pool. If we’re doing that, we have a better chance that our staff development programmes can actually work – and of course, good staff development is part of creating the conditions to stem the flow of good people out of the system.
It feels to me that the academisation of the system and all the exam reforms that have dominated the educational landscape for the last decade – even if we accept the case that they have been positive, necessary reforms – have actually been a major distraction from addressing the most important feature of school improvement: the quality of teaching. If this issue had been addressed successfully in the last 10 years, we would have more competition for teacher training, more competitive fields for teaching posts, fewer teachers leaving the profession and we wouldn’t be desperate to find ways to reduce the thresholds for joining the profession.
The outrageous top-heavy centralised accountability culture that permeates our system – from the ongoing intensity of unproven inspection methods and the associated data machinery that drives school policy making to the dominance of ‘performance management’ over ‘professional development’ in far too many schools – is responsible, in my view, for de-professionalising teaching to a depressing degree. We’ve increased pressure in our tank but only succeeded in creating an environment that drives people away instead of focusing on raising teacher quality through creating the professional culture that incentivises people to join, to learn, to improve and to stay for the long run.
Are we in a better state than we were 10 years ago? I don’t think we are. I don’t see it. I can’t think of anything Ofsted or DFE has done to help – ( I don’t fall for the workload PR and SLT blaming that goes on). Is it any more attractive now to work in a challenging school than it was 10 years ago? No. Is it any easier to sustain a career with a strong professional learning culture? No. Is teaching as a whole a more attractive profession to join than it was 10 years ago? No. I see schools with far too many posts filled with low-Z staff; people keen to learn but who don’t have enough high-Z people around them to learn from. It’s hard for them and it’s hard on their students.
We are where we are – but I would suggest that our system would be improved dramatically if, from now on, all government policy and Ofsted reform was focused exclusively on supporting schools working towards these goals:
- Providing excellent professional learning in every school – real, deep, built-in, sustained professional learning, not the Big Stick approach that is still so pervasive
- Incentivising teachers to stay longer in the profession – looking at pay, pay progression, radical action on workload, far greater professional autonomy around curriculum design, radically rethinking inspection
- Attracting many more people to join the profession – those with the best chance of developing the maximum XYZ combination in the long term: designing a career structure and professional identity that is regarded as high quality, high status, high reward.
If any policy change doesn’t support these goals, we should ditch it or resist it.