'In 2018, let’s reclaim the career of teaching for what it can be'

We must resist the mechanistic, spoon-feeding approach to learning that deskills pupils and devalues teachers. This new year education has never mattered more – our job is to help our students outpace the robots, writes one heads' leader

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The poet TS Eliot wrote that “April is the cruellest month”. But I suspect he wasn’t putting himself through Dry January.

So here we are again. Another new year, when we stand shivering and windswept at the January starting-block of a new school term. But if ever there’s a time for sunny-side-up optimism – amid the nerves, the unfathomable anxiety dreams, the guilt of work not completed – it’s now.

After all, so much of the news around us – of the real and fake variety – is so relentlessly miserable that we owe it to ourselves to use our annual emotional reboot to reinject more optimism into our lives and into education generally. Because if education – where our future generation of young citizens reside – doesn’t exude optimism, then we might as well pack up now and head back home.

That’s especially true of education policy, where the political discourse of the past few days has been all about whether we may soon have yet another education secretary at the helm of the Department for Education.

It’s a sign of how parochial, how short-termist, the English political system is that the media pays such attention to which MP is parachuted into the role, if there’s to be any change at all.

My guess is that in the Shanghais, Finlands and Ontarios of this world, education policy direction isn’t yoked so unhelpfully to the personality and career trajectory of an individual politician, nor the incumbent’s success or otherwise judged by how far they manage to alienate teachers.

No – let’s reject such political flimflam. We have more important issues on our new year agenda.  

After all, as assessment experts Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black taught us long ago, what matters most doesn’t happen in the Westminster bunker. In their influential pamphlet Inside the Black Box, they said something that ought to be emblazoned in every staffroom and every school and college leader’s office: “Standards are raised ONLY by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms.”

Yep. That’s it. It’s the classroom that matters.

'Positivity and collective ambition'

So in the spirit of that great writer Maya Angelou, who said “don’t bring negative to my door”, here’s my suggested shared resolution for 2018. Whilst the politicians look self-absorbedly inwards, let us this year show more collective ambition – for our pupils, for ourselves. Let’s look outwards.

In doing so, let’s be bolder, less compliant, less timid than we have been in the recent past. Let’s reclaim the career of teaching for what it can be.

After all, in the world beyond Westminster, beyond the muddled narrative of Brexit, much is changing. As educationists, we are charged as guardians of the nation’s young people, of those who will need to be most adept at navigating their way into a changing social and economic landscape.

Here’s what I mean. According to the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, with the increasing implementation of automation, artificial intelligence and robots, the jobs that will disappear won’t just be menial, low-skilled ones. Many of those have already gone. Long-standing professional jobs are at risk, too. Haldane predicts, for example, that for an accountant the probability of vocational extinction is a whopping 95 per cent. Management consultant McKinsey says the sector least at risk of automation is us – education.

This provides an optimistic message to teachers and school and college leaders. We are more important than we realise. Because, as Robert Peston puts it in his new book WTF, “what machines can’t do – and quite possibly never will be able to do – is negotiate, build relationships, empathise, instil confidence, win trust, create great arts, write moral philosophy, dream or any of the other emotional and intuitive activities that are central both to highly paid careers and the sheer joy of being alive.”

Robots can’t do this. But we can.

So what does my new year proposal for us to become more ambitious mean in practice?

In teaching, we should be bolder in making sure we demonstrate to young people that learning is messy, knotty, sometimes necessarily boring, unexpected and fun. Celebrate when a pupil asks a question we can’t answer. Resist the mechanistic, spoon-feeding, cut-n-paste approach to learning that deskills pupils and devalues us as teachers. And all of us, let’s ensure – by which I mean guarantee – that the only conversation a pupil has with a member of staff on any given day is never about: “Did you meet your target grade today?” Learning must be about more than this.

In leadership, we should be more ambitious by thinking more about the big picture, by rejecting the myth that piling more accountability on teachers – more marking, more data – somehow leads to better teaching or translates into deeper learning.

We should fight harder for the funding that preserves the arts, the sport, the modern foreign languages, the extra-curricular experiences that will help our young human beings to become ever more distinctively human.

And we should continue to promote in all our young people a sense of their own ambition, encourage them to see their future as global, connected, and compassionate, and remind them constantly that if we are to outpace the robots, then the critical advantage we have as human beings is our capacity – gloriously and creatively - to learn.

This new year, education has never mattered more. Happy 2018.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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