Why educational reform is focused on the wrong thing
16th May 2017
One of my greatest challenges as a Head educating significant numbers of GCSE and A-Level pupils, is the extraordinary nature of recent educational reform in England and Wales.
We have a roller-coaster history in this country of curriculum reform and grading overhauls - remember National Curriculum Levels?
For the last few years schools across the country have had to implement major reforms and for at least the next two years the UK GCSE and A-Level examinations systems will continue to change significantly with the introduction of new grading systems and assessment procedures.
I am a keen reader of educational research and most continues to point towards the importance of teaching when it comes to improving the educational output of pupils. Stating the obvious, you may say. Well, yes and no. We should go further and apply a systems-thinking approach to our educational industry in the UK: if we want teachers teaching the most effective lessons then surely schools should spend time focussing on achieving this objective rather than pushing through ephemeral, distracting tweaks to the curriculum or how it is assessed?
So, here's my manifesto for educational reform which I believe would significantly enhance the quality of provision in UK in the long term:
1) Professional pay. We need a move away from longevity-based pay scales to levels of mastery within the teaching profession. Rather than financially rewarding the number of years of service, regardless of quality, we should instead link pay to the calibre of teaching. Creating promotional levels for teachers would encourage them to engage in professional development and embrace self reflection and growth, which in turn should improve the pupils' educational experience and outcomes. The Legal profession, by comparison has a clearly identified career path with steps including 'trainee', 'solicitor', 'associate' and 'partner'; Medicine and the Military likewise have a plethora of levels based on competency, experience and ongoing professional development. Age is not a barrier to progress; effort and ambition are encouraged and rewarded. Creating a similar system for teachers is vital to improving both the professionalism and quality of education in the UK over the long term.
2) 21st century Professional Development. We need a sector-wide shift away from monitoring teachers' performance to improving professional development for all staff. The carrot, not the stick. Schools are at least 20 years behind other businesses and industries in their adoption of HR systems and processes. We tend to waste far too much time checking and monitoring teachers' performance and spend far too little on developing and enhancing our teachers' skills. This is more than simply management speak: proper human resource management in schools reflects how we fundamentally value teachers and teaching: are they blue collar workers simply churning out a simple process and who need a close eye kept on them, or are they highly trained professionals managing complex demands in sometimes unpredictable circumstances who have the trust and support of their senior managers to deliver all important education for our children?
3) Black Box Thinking and Growth Mindset. There needs to be more emphasis on understanding failure in teaching. Sometimes teachers get it wrong. In fact, every teacher will get it wrong at some point in a working week. Either the structure of the learning is incoherent, the resources are badly pitched or we simply run out of time to plan properly. When teachers don't deliver "good" lessons we should see that as an opportunity to learn, reflect and improve. Over the last 100 years the aviation industry has seen accidents fall from initially about one in every four flights to now one in several million. This has been achieved by throwing a light on failures and - here's the thing - this is only possible if the industry itself is confident enough to identify them in the first place. Schools still have some way to go to ask themselves the important, searching questions about why Johnny did not achieve his five A*s to Cs (or 9s to 5s as it now is) when the data suggested he should have.
4) Resources. In the UK we have some of the hardest working teachers in the world. Commitment is not a problem. That said, with so much time being spent on planning and marking there is naturally less time for one-to-one feedback. One of the best ways to improve instruction is to improve feedback and so freeing up more time for teachers to spend on this area is a necessity. It might not be glitzy or exciting but developing textbooks with solid lesson content that can be used more universally in classes is an important first step.
Reforming the system of education is far more than simply changing an 'A' to a '7'; we need to think carefully about how we recruit, train, inspire and reward teachers and then get out of the way and let them do what they joined the profession for in the first place: to get the best out of the next generation.