'Dear Gavin Williamson... Scrap school league tables'

In an open letter to the education secretary, Yvonne Williams asks him to end the 'crippling accountability system'

Yvonne Williams

Open letter to Gavin Williamson: Yvonne Williams warns the education secretary that the high-stakes accountability system is leading to 'drudgery'

Dear Mr Williamson,

Thank you for your Tes article last week, giving us all an insight into the government’s strategy.

It’s always a risk writing for an audience of teachers. You never know whether your letter is going to be read as an appeal to the profession’s goodwill or as part of your political agenda.

Will the rhetoric be taken apart by linguistic experts or simply assessed for content and style? (Have you modified your language not only to appeal to the teachers in the classroom and to bring them into line, but also to win hearts and minds?)

Obviously, a single article cannot accomplish miracles. But it’s a good start to share a sense of purpose. Teachers are very purposeful people, who keep going whatever the circumstances. 

What we need to know is what the purpose is and whether it’s worth sharing.

Pisa success?

You set great store by the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results. The risk with writing to mathematics teachers is that they will be checking your statistics

How great are the gains in reading that have shifted us from 22nd to 14th place? In 2015, Britain achieved a score of 498; this went up to 505, which is not that statistically significant. And science dropped. Are these triennial samplings really worth the high premium you place on them?

If teachers were a football team in the Premier League, we would be pretty excited by the prospect of raising our game.

Unfortunately, few of us know what the Pisa tests contain, why they show particular achievements and how far they really assess the skills our pupils will need for the future. We only hear snippets from the self-appointed gurus.

The fear of bad exam results

Nationally, we play the league-table game all the time. Its effect has been to narrow teaching to the test, because such great store is set by exam results. Last decade saw some pretty tacky practices to achieve often statistical ends. 

The distortion of learning that has taken place in some institutions may have raised grades for some.

But, by focusing almost exclusively on the testing apparatus, it has deprived students of genuine learning, knowledge and understanding. It’s like teaching players to take corners or free kicks in football, but neglecting the rest of the game. 

Education in the 2010s has been blighted by fear of bad results, in an accountability system that has been uncompromising in all the wrong ways and often for the wrong reasons.

Surely, in the 2020s, we can move beyond easy notions of what “progress” is, and make much more nuanced judgements about how schools and pupils are doing. 

Get rid of school league tables

Perhaps a good start would be to understand that different schools operate in very different circumstances: cohorts are not the same and pupils are individuals.

The question to ask ourselves is whether we should continue with the same annual ritual of vilifying some and lauding others on results day. It’s a great spectator sport for the media, but how much does it really help those at its centre?

Doing away with league tables and reducing the influence of the accountability system would not deprive teachers of their purpose.

In fact, it might restore the right purposes. Extrinsic, target-driven management has taken a high toll. Burnout and disillusionment have driven teachers away, leaving education seriously understocked when it comes to human resources.

Teacher pay and workload

Pay is public recognition of the worth of the profession. A £30,000 starting salary will be attractive if and when it appears – as will further salary increases beyond the first years, to aid retention. 

It’s a scandal that some teachers have been struggling to find affordable accommodation, with the knock-on effect that recruitment in expensive areas has been difficult. It’s not just schools in special measures that struggle to recruit.

Teachers have been subsidising the system for years, working longer hours and receiving less pay pro rata. This inverse relationship needs to be redressed, not just by raising pay but by reducing hours.

The workload initiative has made some gains – for the time being. It will take a real root-and-branch approach to finally stop teachers from being overloaded with bureaucracy. 

A brave government would appoint a workload tsar and a standing committee to keep reviewing teachers’ conditions of service and the demands made on them in all sectors. The 44,000 teachers who filled in the workload challenge could help out here.

Drudgery makes for stupidity

If you are to recapture the passion for teaching, then the bureaucracy has to go. Drudgery makes teachers stupider; reconnecting them with their subjects makes them cleverer. Systems are self-limiting; a highly talented profession is not.

Education goes well beyond the performativity of lesson observations, targets and results. Teachers have always been led by values rather than driven by targets. It’s no accident that our international “competitors” succeed in spite of – or because of – the lighter touch in accountability. 

In the new decade, we have much more to gain through collaboration across schools and trusts, and across international borders. Get rid of the crippling accountability system, so that teachers can get back to the substance of education for the benefit of all pupils.

And let’s save league tables for professional football – not the classroom.

Yours sincerely,

Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a secondary school in the south of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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