Teachers tweet truth to power, but will the politicians listen?

Teachers are taking to Twitter. Tweet via svariophoto/Shutterstock

During the magical month of December 2013 teachers across the UK were given an early Christmas gift from the least expected donor. Twitter buzzed with the news. I first saw it thanks to @teachertoolkit who tweeted with great glee:

It was a reference to the news that Ofsted – the schools inspectorate which has developed the status and reputation of an overbearing ogre – had rewritten its inspection handbook. The rewrite was important for teachers because Ofsted inspectors would no longer be looking for a particular way of teaching and, crucially, would no longer be grading lessons.

That the message was conveyed on Twitter by @teachertoolkit was reflective of a new paradigm in the education world. It isn’t through traditional print media, or television outlets, that teachers are getting their news. The @teachertoolkit Twitter account claims more than 75,000 followers – and Ross Morrison McGill, the deputy headteacher behind it, boasts of being the “most influential” education blogger. Of course, these followers may not all be teachers but it is highly likely that the vast majority are teachers, academics and others interested in education.

In a recent survey about teachers using Twitter, UKEdChat received 450 responses in the first two weeks. The respondents were from teachers and educationalists around the globe. So why are so many teachers flocking to Twitter? As UKEdChat found, the biggest reason is continued professional development: teachers are crying out for high-quality, up-to-date training.

But alongside this, the growth of teacher bloggers reflects a desire, or even a need, for teachers to find a voice. For some this is to vent their frustrations at the system, for some to share resources, and for others it is to articulate philosophical and pedagogical positions and explore political issues.

And it’s not just those at the chalkface who are tweeting. The Department of Education’s Twitter account (@educationgovuk) has 140,000 followers, while the official Twitter account for Ofsted (@ofstednews) boasts more than 75,000 followers. But are these accounts merely a proxy for press releases, or are these bodies actually listening to the newly found teacher voice?

Bringing in the bloggers

In February 2014 a group of teacher-bloggers and twitterati were invited to a meeting with Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s director of schools. These were the big names in the edublogosphere: David Didau (@learningspy), Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), Ross McGill (@teachertoolkit), Sheena Lewington (@clerktogovernor) and Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher).

In his blog post about the meeting, David Didau claims that Cladingbowl “began by asking each of us what we were interested in discussing”. There was no hidden agenda? No political motivation for the meeting? Was this really an attempt by the inspectorate to engage with the profession?

There had been hints, of course, that this was coming. Back in 2013, the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove expressed his admiration for some teacher bloggers, naming Bennett amongst them, along with blogging stalwart Old Andrew (@oldandrewuk).

Morgan accelerates Twitter outreach

The influence and power of Twitter in particular has been seen in the “real” world, through events know as teachmeets, where teachers voluntarily give up their weekends to meet and discuss their practice and the latest educational research. Possibly the most impressive event has been ResearchED, organised by Bennett.

Attempts by politicians, civil servants and inspectors to engage with the teacher-blogger community have accelerated under Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan.

The Department for Education is nearing the end of a consultation with teachers on ways to reduce their workload, called the Teacher Workload Challenge. When Morgan launched this survey she said that she wanted to “build a new deal for teacher workload” and called for teachers’ help.

The government has conducted such surveys before, but this time felt different. The announcement was tweeted and re-tweeted and, by November 6 more than 30,000 respondents had already completed the survey. Tweachers seemed to respond favourably to the announcement of the survey:

However, there was a desire that survey should actually lead to “concrete action”:

Perhaps there is still some bad feeling following a perceived attempt to ignore or disregard concerns raised by the previous survey:

But surveys aren’t the only form of canvassing that the DfE is employing. On November 16 the department (@educationgovuk) hosted #SLTChat – a weekly two hour discussion focused around topics voted for by teachers via an online survey. Last weekend’s was on the topic of assessment and the need to strike a balance between marking and feedback and teachers’ workload and well-being.

On December, 7 #SLTChat will be hosted by none other than Nicky Morgan herself:

So, is this the democratisation of the teaching profession? Has Twitter opened up a line of communication, and are those in power really listening?

I’m not so sure.

Norman Fairclough, linguistics expert and author of Language and Power, lends us an insight into how those in positions of power use language to maintain it. With Twitter and blogs reflecting what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells called the Network Society, we have seen how people, often without political power, can use this technology to self-organise around a campaign – from the Occupy movement to the Arab spring.

‘Nonsense’ tweet backfires

With the rising number of teachers joining the online community of Twitter and blogs it is little wonder that politicians and their civil servants want to get in on the action. But they don’t always get it right, as one “badly worded tweet” suggested in early November.

This Clarksonesque faux pas, from the Department of Education’s official Twitter account, implied that British Values were a strictly heterosexual affair and said it was: “Nonsense to say ‘schools must teach gay rights’”. The department raced to clarify that it meant schools wouldn’t be forced to teach gay rights. But the affair reflected the reality that policy is still driven by ideologies and political agenda.

The apparent olive branch of consultation may have the appeal of shared governance, but it may also be an attempt by those in power to move into this new space of digital dialogue, co-opting those voices that wield the most influence and dominating the discourse. The proof of how genuine these moves to engage teachers really are will be in how the government responds to the workload survey.

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