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The Dangerous Notion of the Dispensability of Teachers

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Dear Sam

exit signThere 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.

Best wishes



Ball, S. (2008) The Education Debate, The Policy Press: London

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8 Responses to The Dangerous Notion of the Dispensability of Teachers

  1. Jonathan Barnes
    jonathan barnes Saturday, 14 December 2013 at 12:02 #

    could not agree more with you Graham. I have just come back from two weeks teaching in Malaysia on their version of the Teach First where they are facing the very same issue. Out of 47 highly qualified graduates following the Teach for Malaysia programme over the last two years – the most excellent students – only 9 have stayed in education and four of those to act as mentors for Teach for Malaysia. These exceptionally bright, enthusiastic, joyfully focused, values-literate and creative teachers to a person spoke of the overwhelming weight of admin, accountability, target meeting and criticism that led to their decision to leave teaching.

    • Graham Birrell
      Graham Birrell Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 10:29 #

      Thanks Jonathan. Governments in the last 25 years have got into a mentality of only focusing on short-term measures and ignoring longer-term impacts on teachers, pupils and consequently our education system generally. An example of this is the collateral damage on teachers that I’ve written about above, which cannot be sustainable. For as long as I’ve been involved in schools teachers have said ‘it can’t carry on like this’, but it always has and nothing has happened to stop the relentless, human ignoring drive for ‘standards’. However, I do wonder if we are finally near to reaching a tipping point.

  2. Deborah Broadley Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 02:56 #

    This is all sadly oh so true.
    In 4 days time, I am leaving the teaching profession, only having trained 10 years ago and gained my accredited SENCo status just 3 years ago.
    The stress and the workload have gradually become unbearable and to protect both my mental and physical health and wellbeing I must give up my livelihood, future financial stability and most of all, a job I worked hard to gain and, in parts, still love.
    Am I dispensable? Absolutely! How do I know? The Head hasn’t spoken to me since I handed my notice in! Do SLT and Governors want to know why I’m leaving? If there is anything they can do to dissuade me? Will I get an exit meeting to discuss why I’m leaving ? NO!
    Will anyone investigate why the whole staff has turned over in less than the 10 ten years I’ve been teaching? NO!
    So where does ‘performivity’ and ‘accountability’ come into the equation here then? It doesn’t. Teachers are monitored, inspected, performance managed, all within the current ‘corrupt and overbearing’ accountability framework by people who appear to be accountable to no one.
    It’s time teachers considered going down the constructive dismissal route instead of passively allowing their careers, lives and futures to be decimated.

    • Graham Birrell
      Graham Birrell Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 10:44 #

      I’m sorry to hear your story Deborah. Tragically it is one I am hearing on a weekly basis, each of which is an example of how the accountability system is having significant negative impact.

      Whilst I have no doubt that many Head Teachers and SLTs need to examine their practices, I do think it’s important to consider it from their perspective too. Many put in place the performativity culture that Ball rightly describes because they feel they have no choice. Many know it is not the right way to go, but the accountabilty regime is so strong that they feel they have to put pressure on their staff to get the immediate results it demands.

      I’m not saying they are right, but from a human perspective I can understand it. They get messages every day about how if results and inspections go poorly the school will be turned into an academy, they will lose their jobs etc. It takes a very brave head to ignore this.

      There is a system of ‘pressure displacement’ that is playing out: from local authorities or academy groups to Head Teachers, and then from Head Teahers to teachers. But who is at the bottom of course? Kids – as the final displacement is from teachers to pupils.

  3. Roy Wilkes Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 09:11 #

    Excellent post Graham. There is a massive gulf between where we are now and the wonderful utopia you describe. The question is, how do we build a bridge between the two, in the context of a political consensus behind the high stress model of accountability? I would suggest that the first step is to build a broad based movement of teachers, academics and unions to push for an evidence based alternative to Ofsted. Is there a body of research that shows positive educational outcomes from supportive and developmental alternatives to Ofsted style high pressure inspection regimes? If not then perhaps someone from academia needs to do that research and feed its outcomes back to those of us on the front line of the chalk face.

    • Graham Birrell
      Graham Birrell Tuesday, 17 December 2013 at 11:12 #

      Thanks Roy. Your question brings into my mind the debate around Eric Hanushek’s highly influential ‘regularly fire the 5-10% worst performing teachers’ argument (here http://www.latimes.com/media/acrobat/2009-10/49898689.pdf). The only way you can do this is to put in place policies that would ‘uncover’ these teachers, which in my opinion would end up being highly punitive and fairly similar, if not identical, to the ones I outlined in my article. Hanushek’s argument has been brilliantly countered by the excellent Bruce Baker (here http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/teacher-selection-smart-selection-vs-dumb-selection/) and Matt di Carlo of the Shanker Institute (here http://shankerblog.org/?p=1473).

      There is lots of research on the impact of inspections generally, but I would also be interested in seeing research evidence on the impact of high pressure policies specifically – I agree that that it’s a very important area that we should be considering. We certainly have the evidence that playing high pressure on pupils can have negative consequences, I’d be surprised if it was any different for their teachers.

  4. Carmen Langridge Saturday, 29 November 2014 at 14:18 #

    I completely agree that the amount of teachers leaving their occupations is unacceptable, however with this high attrition comes a constant influx of trainees filling the vacancies; the teaching qualification is one that receives an increase of applicants each year rather than a decrease. It would seem we are still able to sustain this profession, regardless of the stress.
    In relation to the stress you discuss though, teaching and education is widely mentioned within the media and we have all had that experience with the teachers who get stressed in front of us; surely potential teachers know full well what they are allowing themselves to enter before they make the conscious decision to receive the training? Can this really be used as an excuse for leaving? Nevertheless, I do empathise with the ‘performativity’, and feel that the amount of observation and targets teachers have to go through is unnecessary. Not only do they get observed by Ofsted, but from my own experience, they receive observations from the higher authorities from within their own schools too! This is unlike any other profession. It could be argued that this is because we need to ensure our future generations are receiving the best education, yet if this is the case, could it not be argued that surgeons should undergo the same routine checks, because we need to ensure that our future injuries can be fixed perfectly?
    Nothing can ever be perfect however, and teachers will always have to deal with stressors in the classroom, and there are some that the Government just cannot prevent (for example a child’s misbehaviour on inspection day). We may just have to accept that the teaching profession is one that comes with great anxiety levels. I do feel though that the performance monitoring is crucial within teaching, yet it could be adapted to make the teachers days a little less stressed. It would be interesting to see which teachers and of which age range feel the most stressed though.

  5. Graham Birrell
    Graham Birrell Monday, 1 December 2014 at 16:39 #

    Thanks for your comment Carmen. Do you think the constant scrutiny ‘works’? I wonder if teachers would teach better without the anxiety it creates.