Follow any social media thread written by teachers for long enough and someone will complain about school funding.
It’s clear that many, across all sectors, believe that if their school or college had more money, things would be so much better.
A recent Centre for Education Economics event, sponsored by the NFER, did an impressive job of wrestling with some harsh truths about school funding and educational outcomes.
The UK is actually one of the most generous state funders of education internationally by far, and the expert panel made an expert job of stressing that cause and effect in this area is as slippery as separating two eels in a barrel of snot. Apologies for the simile but it’s there because it illustrates the way that research, and even real science, so often resorts to the language of art to hide weak methodology or bolster even weaker evidence. I’m sick and tired of reading “research” that in the end relies on a mere metaphor for impact.
One of the reasons I found the CfE event impressive was because it avoided this failing. The speakers embraced doubt and imprecision where they found it, just as honestly and lucidly as evidence and conclusions.
The general consensus was that there is some evidence available to link increases in school funding, in certain specific local circumstances, to some improved outcomes for poorer children. On the evidence I saw, it would be complete guesswork to claim anything more substantial than that.
However, what this posse of educational economists clarified for me was something that has been nagging me for a long time about how the educational world functions, in the UK especially. It’s something that leaks out well beyond school funding and ingratiates itself into news stories about multi-academy trusts and leaders’ excessive salaries.
Education is it’s own worst enemy economically.
Teachers 'undervalue themselves'
My work has taken me extensively into both private and public sector contexts, nationally and internationally, and the way so many people in education undervalue themselves and their skills in comparison with the private sector bemuses me. This happens because education is largely a gift economy. It is commonplace to expect things to be done for free that in the commercial world everyone would expect to be paid for.
This isn’t just a matter of practice. It’s deeply embedded in the professional culture of teaching, a really unpleasant side effect of all that intrinsic motivation. It’s learned behaviour. So guess what? It can, and should, be unlearned.
It is naive and insulting to suggest to adults, whose only means of supporting themselves and their families is through work, that they should exchange their skills, experience and talent for nothing more than a warm, fuzzy glow.
It’s strikingly indicative of this gift economy culture, that teachers are so frequently being told by their nominal representatives what they need to, not what they should, do.
If you don’t believe me, listen closely the next time you’re paying attention to someone, anyone, who claims to be speaking for the profession. It’s not exactly consistent to argue for a blanket pay rise across the profession if every other message you give out undermines the very professionalism you claim to represent.
What individual teachers should do, from their first day in the classroom to the moment they look back at the building with a tear in their eye (possibly about five years later), is calmly and firmly resist the temptation to do anything for nothing.
I know it isn’t easy, especially when you are full of ideas, but in the long run, it will be better for you and for the profession. There are ways to be innovative that don’t demand you hand over your spare time.
Headteachers and other senior staff would soon stop expecting young, enthusiastic staff to work for free.
It was immediately evident to me when I started out that the more you did for free, the more you’d be valued. Far too many headteachers will read this and either smile ruefully, or continue reading red-faced, knowing that this kind of strategy, besides simple fawning, is one of the surest routes to promotion.
Schools should learn from good quality business and commerce. Leaders should behave with the clear-cut professionalism I’ve seen far more of in the private than the public sector, and nurture the innovation and enthusiasm young professionals naturally carry with them, through clear, financial rewards.
It should be an expectation, as it is in every commercially sound organisation, that work and effort are rewarded, fundamentally through income. You can get as creative as you like about incentives over and above that basic contractual agreement, and many businesses do.
However, where that basic agreement is abused, avoided or ignored, as it is in a gift economy like education because far too many people in authority expect colleagues or juniors to work for nothing, you inevitably sow the seeds of poor performance, resentment and, ultimately, failure. Which explains why the huge percentage of trainees who leave the profession too early has stagnated for so long.
If simply, as taxpayers, we would all like to do something to extinguish that particular blaze, which has been quietly crackling away in the department’s budgetary pocket for decades, then everyone should stop patting teachers on the head like toddlers and start treating them like adult employees.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue