Hey, DfE and Ofsted: stop treating us like children

When the education secretary tells us he trusts us, he sounds like a parent talking to a teenager, says Kester Brewin

Kester Brewin

GCSEs and A levels 2021: The DfE needs to stop treating teachers like children, says Kester Brewin

I’m sure that as we exhausted teachers crawl home at the end of term, we’ll all do so buoyed by a ringing endorsement from education secretary Gavin Williamson: he trusts us. 

This is all we have wanted to hear. But it’s not just that he trusts us – his department trust us. Oh, yes, we have it in print now: “We trust teachers to know what evidence to use and trust their judgement on grades.”

Hallelujah! One might have cynically concluded after last year’s exams skid pan (I dare not call it a mere U-turn, lest driving instructors are insulted) those in charge of our education system considered us something akin to ticket touts: useful in certain narrow circumstances, but you wouldn’t exactly send one to pick up your grandma’s shopping.

But no, Gavin trusts us and – as his article continues – he wants parents to trust us, too. And to show us how much the educational establishment trusts us, he goes on, here is a stack of guidance from the Joint Council for Qualifications on how to award grades. 

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough evidence of this unflinching trust in our professional judgements, Ofsted has just announced that it will be publishing a set of reports next month to offer us a "well-evidenced view" of what constitutes "high-quality education" in each of our subjects.

The DfE and Ofsted need to show proper trust in teachers

Hmmm. As a parent, this is sounding rather too much like the pep talk I give my young teens when they say they’re off to the park for a socially distanced single-friend meet up.

“I trust you,” I say. “I 300 per cent trust you. It’s just that I need to run through a very detailed checklist of things to give some fine parameters within which that trust exists.” And there then follows from me a set of advice so stupidly broad and obvious that it might actually have been written by the JCQ itself.

In fact, it has long been a concern of mine that, because we work with children, there is some weird leadership psychology that kicks in in education and can’t help treating those being managed as children. 

“We trust departments to award grades using professional judgement,” school leaders say, and all the bosses right through to Don Gav himself say the same – and then cannot help but follow up on these statements of trust with extraordinary amounts of micromanagement: here are grade descriptors; here are forms to fill in; here is an exemplar basket of evidence. Here’s what an assessment ought to look like. Here’s how to moderate. Can we have the precise timetable of your assessments? Can you give students topic lists…but not as detailed as that, and a bit more detailed than this…?

And so it goes on.

If you trust us, then trust us

Please. If you trust us, then trust us. We are experienced professionals. We understand our subjects and the students we have been teaching the content to better than anyone else in the known universe. We know what is fair. And we certainly know that awarding a grade 9 can be done a bit more rigorously than “sort of like the stuff at grade 8, but a bit better”.

You claimed that you trusted us last year. Then – to ramp up the kids-at-the-park metaphor – turned up unannounced, lined everyone up in height order and randomly gave out ice creams. It was excruciating for the students, and embarrassing for us. 

So forgive us for being nervous when you insist again that, really, honestly this time, you actually do trust us…and then start showering us with confusingly vague advice.

Trust comes from Old Norse for “strength”. To trust teachers is to believe in the strength of our professional experience and in the strength and integrity of the systems we have put in place to deliver on the grade calculations you have asked us to do.

I know too well that to trust is to have to show strength, and to claim trust but then follow it up with micromanagement actually nurtures weakness.

But this is not a parent-child relationship. This is adult-to-adult, professional-to-professional.

To all those at JCQ and Ofsted, to the secretary of state and all in leadership in education: we trust that you will do your job to the best of your ability. Please, in return, have respect for us as highly skilled professionals, and trust us to do ours properly, too. 

Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin

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