In a bid to place himself on the side of parents, the prime minister David Cameron has announced an “all-out war on mediocrity” in our schools, declaring that “just enough is not good enough”.
Hot on the heels of various statements from Nicky Morgan, the secretary of state for education, about school funding, Cameron announced that those schools judged by Ofsted to “require improvement” would join those in the “inadequate” category and be forced to become academies. We’ve been there before, with conversion to academy status being seen as the panacea for all the ills facing struggling schools.
While new leadership and removal from local authority controls – both seen as the touchstones of the academies programmes – may help some schools reboot – there is contested evidence as to whether changing the status of a school automatically leads to improvement. A recent Education Select Committee report on academies and free schools, saw its chair, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart stating:
It’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards. What we can say is that, however measured, the overall state of schools has improved during the course of the programme.
Others, such as the teacher and author Francis Gilbert writing in The Guardian, have argued that academies have been “an expensive red herring”.
Quality of teaching
What appears to have a greater political and academic consensus is the role that teachers play in making a difference at school. Work by consultants McKinsey backs up national and international research that all point to the central role of the teacher as the professional educator in the classroom. Ultimately, it is the quality of teaching that is central to making a difference to children and young people in the classroom, rather than the legal status of the school.
So it’s strange then, that the prime minister’s solution to tackle mediocrity did not focus on teaching and the quality of teacher training and professional development. All the more odd since Morgan’s predecessor, Michael Gove, had launched his own investigation into teacher education, which has just reported back.
The review, led by Andrew Carter, a headteacher running a successful School Centre Initial Teacher Training provider, starts out making it clear that: “what really matters most in a child’s education is the quality of teaching”. This includes giving teachers access to evidence-based research and supporting moves for greater professional support for subject specialism and deep subject knowledge.
While the Carter Review recognises the importance of qualified teachers, the profession is facing serious issues in terms of workload. After a large-scale consultation with teachers, the government has recently recognised some of the administrative and data burdens they face and set out a plan to tackle teacher workload. But teaching unions are disappointed that the government didn’t agree to more avenues for consultation with teachers on reforms.
Unlike locally maintained schools, academies – and free schools, which have similar freedoms to academies – don’t have to employ qualified teachers. So all the talk about the importance of qualified teachers, how we train them, how we support them and their role in developing outstanding schools would apply to these mediocre schools forced to become academies.
Added up, this has made for a slightly bizarre school improvement strategy in England. Take schools deemed by Ofsted to require improvement, change them to academies and then they won’t have to employ qualified teachers. So much for teachers being a critical factor in the quality of learning.
Cynicism aside, there is a very real issue rumbling behind the headlines on “mediocre” schools and forced academisation and that is the issue of the supply of teachers and the quality of the teaching profession. According to the TES, more than three quarters of teachers have considered leaving the profession. Reports from local authorities are showing a nationwide lack of teachers.
A range of factors may be to blame, workload pressures, lack of access to professional development combined with constant changes to structures, curricular, and assessment methods, which make teaching a very difficult job. This means that for struggling schools in difficult circumstances, recruitment can become an increasingly uphill struggle.
There must be another way
Rather than seek to push schools that require improvement down the academy route, perhaps we should be looking for our politicians to develop more innovative ways of supporting our teachers and their professional development.
Moves towards a College of Teaching might be one such way. The intention is that a college could raise the status of the profession and remove teaching from some of the tensions inherent in being kicked around as a political football. There are also plans to give teachers more access to evidence-based research through initiatives such as the MESH guides being developed by the University of Bedfordshire.
Yet both of these are long-term solutions that don’t solve the immediate problem of an impending teacher shortage, nor the pressing need to make sure initial teacher education is valued and attractive to entrants, and that teachers have access to professional development throughout their careers.
Devaluing the profession, or suggesting that schools could improve better without qualified teachers, wouldn’t be my idea of an effective strategy, nor a way of solving an increasingly acute teacher shortage.