There is a golden rule in teaching that runs something along the lines of ‘don’t punish the whole class for the poor behaviour of a few’. Not only is this an injustice, but it breeds resentment and diminishes motivation. It appears from your last piece that the government is making that same mistake, but on a whole system level. You wrote: ‘I hope I’ve answered your question about why Government doesn’t trust schools: not everyone is trustworthy.’ My only conclusion from this is you think all schools appear to require strong medicine, carrying significant side effects, because a very small minority are ill. This is a little depressing. However, on a more positive note, I was encouraged by your agreement that the accountability framework has become both corrupted and overbearing.
I’d like to get your perspective on another consequence of the inspection and accountability culture: the personal effect it has on teachers. Every year around 45,000 teachers leave the profession – an unacceptably high level of attrition. In studies examining why it’s not simply about the classic reason of pupil behaviour: it is also strongly about stress and workload. None of these things will come as a surprise to any teacher reading this as the stories from individual cases are alarming and surveys report unacceptably high levels of tension, with one showing over half of the teaching profession is suffering from severe stress.
After decades of research on the optimum conditions for effective learning, we now know that highly stressed children struggle to learn, are more likely to exhibit behaviour problems, have weaker short and long-term memories, and have more mental and physical health problems.
Why is any of this likely to be different for teachers? How did we think it was acceptable to build an education system that is reliant on coercion, pressure, anxiety and in some cases downright fear?
However, we currently have a system where these things don’t seem to matter so long as the numbers keep going up.
I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Stephen Ball, particularly on the subject of ‘performativity’? Essentially, performativity is enacted through an audit culture where teachers are ‘reinvented’ as ‘units of resource whose performance and productivity must constantly be audited so that it can be enhanced.’ This is a system that relies on constant targets, performance management, inspections and judgement, none of which will ever prove you are good enough. Ball goes so far to say that this creates a ‘system of terror’ of pressure, surveillance, intense work environments, changing social dynamics where teachers fight each other instead of working together, and increasing disconnection between senior management and teaching staff (Ball, 2008, p60). And why does this happen? Because the hunger of the accountability machine has to be satisfied.
You’ve said many times that we need to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ in to teaching, just like they do in Finland. I completely agree. However, not only is it incredibly hard to do this when teaching has such a stressed-out status, but even if the evidence suggests we are managing to recruit more graduates with high degrees, I am very skeptical as to how long they will stay.
You’ve rightly said to me in the past that I should offer alternatives, not just critiques. However, in this case I don’t think I need to – I hope nobody is going to argue that high levels of teacher stress and consequent attrition are a good way to run an education system; even if they (possibly) get ‘results’ in the short-term, their longer-term damage is both an educational and a moral hazard. The work of people like Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, and that of Pasi Sahlberg has shown that longer term solutions are needed. They powerfully argue that we should focus on building school cultures where teachers are respected as experts, are trusted as experienced and knowledgeable decision makers, and where we invest in teachers’ careers through enhanced professional development and time for space and reflection.
I do not believe that we can have a world leading education system when we treat teachers in the way we currently do. It’s time to stop treating them as dispensable.
Ball, S. (2008) The Education Debate, The Policy Press: London