Is there evidence of popular support from the teaching profession? Tom Bennett looks closely behind the headlines and doesn't find much
A few days ago the people behind the College of Teachers project launched an audacious attempt to crowdfund the proposed new professional body, as well as announcing the trustees who will take the project forward. But does the College enjoy support from many actual teachers yet? The publicity website Claim Your College has a few claims to make of its own in this area. From May:
Eight in ten teachers seek the benefits of a new College of Teaching
A major new survey carried out by the Claim Your College coalition reveals that 80% of respondents surveyed viewed the ambitions of the College of Teaching, a new independent chartered professional body for the teaching profession, as valuable.
The new survey of over 13,000 teachers, carried out by The Education Company, highlights that teachers are ready for change:
• Over six in 10 (63.1%) indicated that they would consider paying an annual membership fee to be part of the College of Teaching.
• 68.4%* indicated that the College of Teaching should be community led by teachers and should include others working in the education field.
• So far 45% of teachers have heard of a College of Teaching
• Almost a third said that they would be willing to contribute to a crowd funding campaign to help found the College
• Half indicated they would be willing to match fund start-up ‘no strings’ grants from government or philanthropists.
Which on the face of it sounds an extraordinary vote of confidence. But taking a look at the research that informs it, I’m not so sure. For a start, the headline implies 80% of all teachers; of course, going below the line it means 80% of respondants. A small point but vital when you know the headline is often the only thing that endures, or gets public attention.
The actual research is here, and it makes interesting reading.
The Education Company carried this survey out. Who are they?
Their website helpfully tells us that:
Established back in 1992, we have been helping education suppliers like you to market and sell [my emphasis] effectively into schools and colleges for more than twenty-five years….Much of our research is conducted through our teacher-facing Classroom Voice brand. This ensures results are independent of any brand association or commercial bias.
It might concern some that a marketing/ sales firm would be used to conduct this research, and many will draw their own conclusions about potential impartiality issues when research is commissioned by an organisation with a vested interest (ie the College) and conducted by an organisation primarily concerned with marketing and sales. Of course there is no suggestion that such a conflict exists here.
The next part of my trouble with the research substantiating the claims to popular support, is the methodology. For a start, who was actually surveyed? The College claim is that 13,000 answered the survey, which is a healthy number. Less healthy is the realisation that all respondents were self-selected, i.e. hundreds of thousands of surveys were sent out by the marketing- sorry- the research- company and people were free to respond or not, meaning the sample will be skewed enormously towards people who care about this topic, which will usually mean those who are in favour. Also, 13,000 respondents out of a possible 438,000 teachers (DfE, 2011) is 2.9% of the actual group size, which is tiny. The way that serious pollsters counter this kind of bias is by e.g. weighting, which hasn't been done here.
Small sample sizes and self-selection are serious problems for the design of a survey; it’s the reason why- for example- university campus rates of sexual violence are reported by some as 1 in 5, which would make them on a par with a sub-Saharan warzone Bluntly, they're enormously biased ways of getting information. It’s impossible to seriously map their findings onto a larger population.
Out of an initial survey wave, 40,000 named staff member were emailed. 1628 people responded, or 4%. Questions were tweaked, and it was sent out again, this time to 309,000 teachers and administrators. So, to be clear, this time, an unknown percentage of respondents came from non teaching staff. Which might be seen by some to be problematic when you’re trying to reach out to teachers about an organisation that proposes to represent and promote teachers. We do know that 140,000 of this second wave were to named, personal school emails. and the other 169,000 were ‘via the office email.’ Were more than half of the respondants non-teachers? It's impossible to say, but the very possibility is worrying.
As reported, the responses were overwhelmingly positive about the aims of the proposed College, open to the idea that it should include more than just purely teachers in its membership, fairly happy to part with some cash to provide funds for the college, and happy for government funding and crowd funding to be considered. But perhaps, given the unknown proportion of non teachers contributing to an already low response rate of self-selected enthusiasts, none of these responses could be construed as surprising.
Additionally, the phrasing of the questions were arguably designed to garner a desired response. There were no questions like ‘Do you think we need a College of Teachers?’ ‘Why do you think the existing College of Teachers has failed to animate the profession?’ or ‘What dangers do you associate with a proposed College?’ I’m sure this survey was done with the best of intentions and the best of methodologies. But to my mind it's simply insufficient as evidence that teachers either care about a College or desperately want one. Or indeed have heard of it (although you’ll be happy to know that about 45% had, which given the methodological problems already noted, is heartening).
Does this matter? It does when you claim that the proposed college enjoys the popular support of the profession. It is of profound importance that any professional body that claims to represent a constituency commands genuine and broad allegiance. This survey, in my opinion, falls very short of demonstrating anything like that.
I have no problem with people who want to set up a body, and then join it. It is, after all, voluntary. But we mustn’t make the mistake of believing that it represents anything other than itself. Teachers, I frequently and sadly observe, are usually, repeatedly, the last people to be asked their opinion on anything related to school issues. Social media has provided some redress in that matter, although structural change in the hierarchy is slow to achieve. It's important that when someone claims to speak on our behalf, those claims are justified; otherwise it's business as usual and nothing ever changes. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been writing for years about the importance of Teacher Voice. And so far, a genuine Teacher Voice is only noticeable by its absence in the genesis of the College.
Is there any other evidence?
One possible shaft we could mine for data is in the crowd funding. Now this is interesting, as it represents a real way of testing the claim that popular support exists for financial contributions from the rank and file. Surely that would demonstrate real, not paper, aspirations?
Sadly, this seam remains barren. As of writing (27th September 2015, midnight), £11185 (4% of the project goal) has been donated. Now, actually that's not bad considering it launched two days previously. Then you look at the list of donors and you see that it was opened with a £10K donation from the Primary Science Teaching Trust (a charity started by AstraZeneca, the international pharmaceutical company), which means that at most it represents just over a grand of possible grass roots donations. Looking closer we see that several of the remaining donors are trustees and administrators of the College, and a further £680 came from anonymous sources. So right now it doesn’t seem like many teachers are tripping over themselves to cough up. Still, early days.
Several of the founding members and trustees are very talented and connected, and I’m sure that by themselves they could drum up a good deal of money (which isn't easy). But that still doesn't provide any kind of demonstration of grass roots support. When we start to see thousands of donations of £25 from classroom teachers, then we can say that this is crowdsourced from an actual crowd. But lump, large donations only prove what we already know- that lots of big educational interests are, well, interested in this.
Finally, I want to make a point clear that might have been lost in the preceding paragraphs: I’m not anti-the CoT. It might be a fantastic body that revolutionises and reinvigorates the job I love and lays the ground for a future where teachers enjoy- and deserve- the respect and status of a true profession. But this is not yet obviously a grass roots movement. Not from the evidence so far. And if it wants to command the respect of the profession rather than be seen to be yet another layer of bureaucracy, then it needs to make the argument in staff rooms and classrooms, not board rooms. And then demonstrate it.
*(Oddly, the press release on its own website claims that 4% of respondants wanted it to be community led- the actual research says it's 68.4%, so I've corrected that here)