On the 30th September, as I explained in a previous post, I sent a letter outlining my concerns about the future of education in the country and particularly in Yorkshire to five people who have the ability to drive forward real change for the better. I wrote to Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, Lucy Powell, the Labour education spokesperson, John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Jeremy Corbyn, the (then) newly elected leader of the Labour party and Tristram Hunt, the outgoing Labour education spokesperson, but someone who had been saying interesting things about education.
The letter I sent (minus the personalised first paragraph) is shown below…
I am writing to you as a teacher and a concerned citizen. I’ve taught mathematics to 11 to 18 year olds in a central Sheffield school for over 20 years and am passionate about how a good quality, all-around education can improve social mobility. As the first person in my family to ever get to university I’m an example of what education can do for someone’s future. I love my job but I’m beginning to become disheartened at what has happened and is happening to education in this country and specifically, for reasons that will become clear, in my home county of Yorkshire.
I’m sure we can agree that education is one of the most important (if not THE most important – but I am biased) responsibilities of society. Our economic, scientific, artistic, societal and cultural prospects rest on the education of our young people. Education is too important to get wrong – our children only get one chance.
Over the last 20 years as a teacher (and previously as a pupil) I’ve experienced the old fashioned (and if current theories circulating the education world are to believed the future) O levels and A levels. I’ve experienced the move to GCSE qualifications. I’ve experienced big budget cuts to schools in the 80’s and 90s which left pupils sharing tatty text books (I was one of those pupils and eventually one of those teachers struggling to get sufficient quality resources together). I’ve experienced the massive increase influx of money into education (not always wisely spent) over the 2000s which improved the pay of teachers, replenished the infrastructure of and re-built decrepit schools. I’m not convinced the status of the teaching profession rose to match this. (I’m more than happy to admit the teaching profession needs to share some – but not all – responsibility for this)
Over the same period I’ve also experienced the tightening of central control over what happens in the classroom and the increasingly target-driven culture that is now endemic in the British educational system. Whatever you may say, that control has not diminished – in fact it may have increased. It is just the current administration, in my opinion, has found different levers with which to exert this control. It is as if government (of all colour and creed) just doesn’t trust teachers to teach our young people.
Over the last five years I’ve experienced tightening budgets, cuts to post 16 education (which has massively affected schools like my own which have 6th forms and who may now even have to consider laying teachers off because of these cuts – sorry freezes) and I’m experiencing radically different curricula ostensibly designed to introduce more rigor to our children’s education. (I’m yet to be convinced about this)
As a teacher I’ve experienced a number of OfSTED inspections – every single one of which have given me sleepless nights before and during and none of which has made me a better teacher (just a much more anxious one). I’ve seen exam results improve, I’ve seen them fall. I’ve seen grade boundaries moved at the last minute to, I believe, satisfy a perception that things are getting too easy. I’ve seen coursework introduced, I’ve seen coursework banned. I’ve seen vocational qualifications championed and I’ve seen them abused verbally by politicians and some cases, statistically by schools. I’ve seen the hard work of thousands of teachers and pupils denigrated by politicians and the commentariat over the years because of a belief that exams were ‘better in the olden days’. I’ve seen teachers and most importantly students gibbering wrecks because of the pressure piled on us all to achieve the magic C grades and make sufficient progress.
I guess I’m saying I’ve seen a hell of a lot of change over the last 20 years. All of which I and many of my colleagues across the country have had to deal with. Much of this change was welcomed. Much was not. Much was knee jerk political change with a weak bedrock of research to back it up. All was driven by central government irrespective of local differences. The only time a regional approach seemed to be taking off was in 2003 when the London Challenge was born. This died with the birth of the coalition government.
One constant over the last few years has been the position of my own county, Yorkshire, at the foot of the school performance league tables. In a target driven environment when the grade C is sacrosanct (irrespective of the starting point of a pupil it seems) and a school lives and dies by how many pupils it gets through the 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics meat grinder, Yorkshire schools, as a whole, hold the rest of the nation up. I appreciate the measures are changing and the progress 8, whilst narrowing the curriculum (and controlling it – yet another lever) does go some way to address the starting point issue, try telling that to the local paper and the local parents.
When this happened to London did central government wash their hands of the capital’s schools, teachers and pupils? Did they impose yet more targets and send in the OfSTED hit squads to ‘turn-around’ these failing schools? Did they denigrate them in then press? No – they introduced a radically different approach – the London Challenge. The funny thing is… IT WORKED! London now sits proudly on top of the regional league tables. The challenge was ended, for I assume budgetary reasons, when the coalition came into being in 2010 but the legacy continues. Even today (September 30th) there is a piece on the BBC news website saying that London schools will continue to harvest the fruit sewn through this era by radically better performances (and hence massively better future prospects) for its disadvantaged young people. It goes on to say that it may have lessons to teach other regions. My point exactly!
This was a scheme which was initially data driven but not in a way that named and shamed under-performing schools or used as a lever to begin the academisation process so loved by the current government. (I have no particular issues with academies per se – I just don’t think becoming an academy is the silver bullet the current administration appear to think) It was used to group schools to allow collaboration, self and peer review, shared approaches and most importantly critical challenge from partners. It ensured the current and future leaders were given outstanding training and development. It focused relentlessly on teaching and learning. It allowed schools to make mistakes provided they were going in the right direction. If it was good for London, why can’t it be good for Yorkshire?
Of course we have to factor in the fact that every pupil in a London classroom attracts £1000 more than each of the pupils I taught today (hardly fair valuing a London child as £1000 more valuable than a Sheffield one – and that does take into account London weighting), but even accounting for that regional injustice, the transformation has been enormous.
As a dedicated teacher, one who regularly works 50 hour weeks and often in excess of 60 hours (I’m the norm not an aberration) I’m asking you as an opinion former in education policy to think differently and think radically about regional solutions to the educational divides that really do exist in our state education sector. Please talk to those who worked within the London challenge and those in positions of responsibility nationally and regionally (particularly in Yorkshire if I may be allowed to bang my own regions drum).
My future year 11s don’t really want to hear your platitudes of how you value them and their teachers. They aren’t interested in what you’ve said or done in the past. They want to be treated in the same way as their peers in London. They want their schools to be the best in the country. They want their teachers to be the best in the world – not the most anxious. The old adage holds – if you try the same thing over and over again and expect different results you are either stupid or incompetent. Why not look to something that really did work and try and make in work in places like Yorkshire.
I for one, and I would not be alone, would welcome yet more radical change provided it was driven for the right reasons and backed up by a rigorous and methodical research base. Change that brings the education sector with it without trying to point-score. I want a Yorkshire challenge for the children I teach and will teach. I’m greedy – I want the best educated most prosperous region and country possible. We can’t do this with current education structures. I can’t do this myself – I’m a non-entity. I’m just a forty-something teacher who is passionate about what he does. I have absolutely zero influence. You have a position and in my humble opinion, a responsibility to actually say and do something about this.
I suppose that, two months later, if they were going to reply and respond to my plea to them they would have done by now. I can report that the only reply I’ve had is from one of Nicky Morgan’s minions in Manchester. The secretary of state never even saw the letter. This was full of the platitudes and self aggrandisement I’d particularly asked for them not to do. I suppose, being a non-entity of a normal, run of the mill secondary school teacher, they can afford to totally ignore me. After all, with all their experience in the classroom they know best… don’t they?