‘I might as well be a robot’

With the rise of multi-academy trusts, some teachers are now finding that they no longer have control over what they teach. It is not uncommon for MATs to prescribe a single curriculum across their schools – and even to provide scripted lessons. Some teachers fear that their professional judgement is being undermined, while others argue that getting everyone on the same page raises standards through collaboration. John Roberts asks: are MATs taking too much power away from their teachers?
9th November 2018, 12:00am
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‘I might as well be a robot’


You might as well get robots in to do this job. We don’t get to plan lessons. That is done for us - telling us what needs to be taught and when. The targets are set for us.” These are the words of a teacher with nearly two decades of classroom experience, who says he is now working in an environment where less faith is placed in him than ever before.

The education he provides to his pupils is not the result of his subject knowledge, passion or experience, but the delivery of a prescribed lesson plan presented to him weeks earlier over a webinar.

The secondary maths teacher, who has asked to remain anonymous, works for an academy trust with schools across the country, at which - in his words - decisions on children’s education are “driven from the centre”.

It’s easy to see how this might prove difficult for someone who has previously enjoyed more autonomy. But what does it actually mean for teaching standards?

In the past 12 years the academies movement has transformed the schools system. Political debate has raged on about what type of school structure is most effective or most accountable. But there has been less discussion about what it is like to teach inside this new world - where some multi-academy trusts are taking a highly centralised and prescriptive approach to what goes on in the classroom.

As with so much in education, opinion is divided. The maths teacher who spoke to Tes about his experiences believes that the MAT system has fundamentally changed the teaching profession - and not in a good way.

“The trust has produced key performance indicators all the way through from Years 7 to 11 for every pupil and we have to set regular knowledge tests, because they want constant data,” he says.

“The lessons plans are set out for us. We don’t determine what the key performance indicators are and we have to report back to them every half term. I have been a teacher for 18 years. Centralisation has crept in and it is now really increasing.”

“I can see how it will help teachers who are inexperienced but for experienced teachers it can be pretty insulting. They say they want to have consistency across the curriculum but in my opinion the way it is being done is wrong. It undermines teachers.”

It’s a damning conclusion. But it’s only one point of view. Elsewhere, teachers in one MAT, based in the North of England, tell Tes how 27 primary schools adopting the same standardised approach to reading is unlocking the potential of pupils and teachers.

The model described by Helen Prout, of England Lane Academy, in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, is also driven and defined by her MAT, Delta Academies, yet she seems enthused by it.

“All of the schools across the trust are working on the same texts and it brings everyone together,” says Prout, a Year 6 teacher and assistant principal. “We bring our pupils’ workbooks and share examples of what has worked well.

“We are exposing all pupils to more complex texts and it’s a whole-class approach. And all the schools across the trust are delivering it.”

It is easy to forget that the driving force behind the academies programme was the idea that schools needed to be given greater autonomy. The argument goes that teachers and leaders who know their schools and pupils best should be the ones making the decisions about their education.

Making the case for the expansion of academies back in 2012, Michael Gove, then education secretary within the coalition government, highlighted Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) findings that “more autonomy for individual schools helps to raise standards”.

It seems ironic then that many who championed Gove’s reforms today actually argue the opposite. The academies programme has evolved not into thousands of autonomous standalone schools but a world of MATs, and many of the most successful are run tightly from the centre.

For those who believe in the centralising and standardising work that goes on within MATs, it is simply a question of common sense. Outwood Grange Academies Trust, one of the strongest performing MATs in the North, has become well-known for using a set approach across its schools.

Everything from the qualifications and schemes of work to the willow green paint on a school’s wall is determined centrally by the trust. Its chief executive, Martyn Oliver, explained to Tes earlier this year that “if you’re doing something really well in one school, it’s perverse to withhold it”.

Paul Tarn, who once worked for Outwood, has taken a similar approach as chief executive of Delta, previously the struggling School Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA). “I don’t know why you would join a MAT if you didn’t want to collaborate across schools,” he says. When Tarn took over SPTA in 2016, it was facing financial challenges and had been warned by the regional schools commissioner about the standards in around a third of its schools. SPTA, in Tarn’s words, was not a trust; it was collection of schools with heads who rarely met.

That has all changed. Now there is standardisation of qualifications and resources, and results have since improved.

Last year, at a conference of heads, Tarn asked senior leaders at the trust to develop a reading strategy that would give children from disadvantaged backgrounds the same command of vocabulary as those from middle-class families. The result is the approach that has enthused Prout, and every member of staff in the trust has now been trained to deliver the strategy.

This sounds prescriptive, but Tarn insists it is part of a collaborative approach, which allows teachers to reconnect with their love of their job. He says it is important that schools work together, not in isolation, and he expects the approach to deliver better Sats results.

“The job can grind you down and teachers can forget about why they came into teaching,” he says. “We have found that bringing subject specialist teachers together to discuss what they do reminds them of why they came into teaching. Why they love teaching science or maths or English or geography.”

How MATs exert control over their schools - and to what extent - varies. It can mean standardising the exam boards and the qualifications that schools choose or the curriculum that is followed. But some trusts are taking this a step further by setting out exactly what is taught through scripted lessons - a phenomenon which, as Tes reported last year, is on the rise in schools.

For example, two of the most high-profile MATs, Ark Schools and the Inspiration Trust, use “expressive writing” - a highly scripted direct instruction programme - to help to teach punctuation and grammar. The Inspiration Trust says it does not work in a “top-down” way and uses a range of approaches to make the most of teachers’ talent and expertise.

However, there are concerns that scripted approaches are, in general, a step, or perhaps several steps, too far.

Prof Sam Twiselton, director of the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, says: “I have heard that in the most extreme cases this means literally reading from a script.

“I have worries about this. At its best, teaching is a creative, responsive experience. Yes, you need a plan and you need some careful thoughts about how you are going to support these children’s learning, but children aren’t going to follow a script even if you do.”

She believes that a script can only take a teacher so far. “I haven’t seen it in action, and I need to, but my own personal research, which looked at student teachers doing their initial teacher education, suggests to me that in order to become more expert, you need to become more flexible not less flexible.

“If you link this to teacher training, there might be a point where a scripted lesson is helpful right near the beginning when you are just trying to sort organisation and management when none of that has become automatic. I can see that might be a helpful prop but I would say that it needs to be gradually reduced.”

But it is easy to find teachers working within MATs who enthuse about the practical benefits of a centrally driven approach. Hywel Jones has been at the forefront of the changing schools landscape for many years. After working as head of the high-profile West London Free School, he worked for the Inspiration Trust and is now deputy director for education at Astrea Academy Trust, in Cambridgeshire.

Jones believes the kind of shared curriculum he developed for the Inspiration Trust’s primary schools can reduce workload for teachers (see box, below). “I remember when I first started teaching in 2005, and for several years after that, most of my Sundays were taken up with planning lessons or planning schemes of work for a department, working on my own,” he says. “Now I look back and think how inefficient that was.”

He also believes that teachers in larger MATs can see “career progression” in a way that is not possible for those working in a standalone school. This is a view echoed by Julian Drinkall, chief executive of Academies Enterprise Trust, the country’s largest MAT.

“We want our teachers and leaders to be brave and take risks, and we will provide the safety net so that it is safe to do so,” he says. “In a standalone school, development of that kind just isn’t possible - yes, you can move from school to school, but you start afresh each time, and sometimes have to take the plunge into the unknown. With AET, teachers are able to plan out their whole career path, trying out opportunities that stretch and develop them in ways that would otherwise not be possible.”

But another teacher whom Tes spoke to highlighted the size of his employer - another major trust - as a problem. The English teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, works for a trust that runs around 40 schools in London and the South of England, and feels it is disconnected from the communities it serves. “I used to enjoy being a part of the community school and knowing you were responsible to the local taxpayers,” he says. “As teachers, we should be accountable to the community and parents, but when you are part of a big organisation where decisions about how the school is run are taken elsewhere, it does make me feel quite uncomfortable.

“Decisions are directed. You cannot argue. This isn’t something where people are being invited to have their say over it. This is a standardised approach taken across the trust.”

Ofsted’s plans to put greater emphasis on the curriculum during school inspections have led to calls from heads’ unions for the teaching profession to be given a greater national voice in deciding what it teaches. But maybe the time is also right for a debate on how much teachers’ voices are heard within their own schools.

John Roberts is a reporter for Tes

Should we stick to the script?

The term “scripted lessons” can be used to describe a variety of approaches to supporting teachers in the classroom.

At one end of the spectrum, there are lessons that are fully scripted like a play. At the other, there’s a looser framework provided by schools that plots out a clear sequence of learning, which the teacher can still work around.

Scripts can also come with different degrees of compulsion attached. Some scripts might be provided as an optional tool that the teacher can use or leave in their drawer. Elsewhere, a school or MAT might make following a script mandatory.

Scripted lessons aren’t new. The father of the modern script is arguably Siegfried Engelmann, the American educationalist who designed the direct instruction teaching approach. “DI” is based on the idea that if a child fails to learn, it’s not the fault of the child, but rather the instruction - hence the value of a carefully controlled script.

Engelmann invented DI in the 1960s, and the scripts it uses are at the prescriptive end of the spectrum.

Such an approach is not yet commonplace in England’s schools. But with the growth of centrally controlled multi-academy trusts, it could become a logical next step in ensuring consistency across schools that are already centralising teacher resources.

Heather Fearn, Ofsted’s inspector curriculum and development lead, used to work for the Inspiration Trust MAT, where she helped roll out a scripted programme across “most schools in the trust”.

She told Tes last year that the beauty of the script is that it delivers an “instruction sequence” that has been refined and rigorously field-tested over multiple years, “taking an amount of time and research to get it exactly right that an individual teacher could never achieve”.

A central curriculum ‘doesn’t stifle teachers’ creativity’

One of the areas where centrally controlled multi-academy trusts (MATs) have been establishing consistency across their schools is the curriculum.

Hywel Jones, who has helped the Inspiration Trust to develop its own curriculum and is now set to take on a similar role at Astrea Academy Trust, believes MATs are well placed to drive this work.

For him, there are two clear benefits. A MAT with primary and secondary schools, and especially those with feeder schools, can manage a curriculum that flows from key stage 2 to key stage 3, and this gives more scope to “think about how areas and subjects are sequenced.”

He also believes that having a structured plan of what is taught, and when, will actually free up teachers. “I am not saying a core curriculum is the panacea for everything but I think it is a great way of managing workload,” he says. “It gives teachers a clear idea of what is expected. It doesn’t have to take away from teachers’ developed expertise. They can still supplement the core curriculum.”

Jones rejects any suggestion that such an approach will stifle teachers. “I think the idea that a core curriculum across a MAT takes away teachers’ creativity is a straw-man argument because it does still provide scope for autonomy. It compliments what teachers do,” he says.

But there are questions about how this approach will fit within a new Ofsted inspection framework, which will place much greater emphasis on a school’s decision-making on curriculum. Will schools delivering a trust-approved curriculum be well-placed? Or will a school need to be able to demonstrate that it owns its curriculum rather than simply delivers it?

Will Ofsted be forced to judge the MAT’s curriculum rather than the school’s if they, in effect, are one and the same thing?

An Ofsted spokeswoman says the focus will still be on what happens in each school. But she adds: “Where a central team in the MAT is involved in setting the curriculum, then this would, of course. be taken into account. However, our inspection judgement, as now, would be of the individual school, not the MAT it is part of.

“Inspectors will speak to whoever is best-placed to provide information on the curriculum. This may involve speaking to someone from the MAT central team.”

She adds that Ofsted would not judge a school negatively for being too dependent on the MAT for its curriculum direction.

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