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'If Gove wants progress he must allow our best teachers to fail'

Henry Welwyn*, a science teacher at an academy in east London, writes: 

At a training day late last year, the question was posed to the staff assembled in the theatre of the academy where I work: “What is the most important part of teaching an outstanding lesson?”

The answer, given by the majority of teachers in the room, was “progress” – a word which in education has come to be accompanied by images of students hunched over exam papers in wooden-floored sports halls, Sir Michael Wilshaw nodding sagely behind his desk or Michael Gove’s hand thumping on to a lectern as he delivers his vision to yet another crowd of disgruntled union members.

What does this word mean? Gove’s supporters would argue that progress means knowledge, achievement and, above all, results. A year ago, I would have agreed. I’d just left my job in an investment bank, watching corporate executives live and die by their results, and was inspired to see someone bringing this attitude of accountability into the world of education. What I realise now, having dug a little deeper into the dogma, is that progress doesn’t really mean anything anymore; it simply represents a process, the way Gove, Wilshaw et al would like things to be done.

This idea isn’t new. The German American philosopher Herbert Marcuse and others have written extensively about how words can become divorced from their underlying concepts and, in an uncomfortable wedding usually arranged by politicians, remarried to their everyday functions. Repetition causes the original meaning to be lost completely: thus when Michael Gove speaks of “progress”, he is not asking us to consider what the word means, instead expecting us to absorb the process that his vision of progress entails.

I teach science in a shiny, new academy; corporate-sponsored and boasting a more results-driven ethos than most FTSE 100 companies. The word progress has become a familiar song that I can’t remember the name of. At first I thought it involved advancement of oneself, yet this seemed far too grandiose a description of what was going on in my classroom.

Next I pondered whether it meant to develop understanding of the world but, as the hooded figure of exams approached and hearts begun to quicken in a panic of rote learning, this idea too lost credibility. Finally, I felt I’d found the perfect word to encapsulate the principle: “improvement”.

Progress in schools is a chain of positive feedback loops, all linked together: students improve their skills, thus broadening their knowledge; teachers improve their practice, thus growing in confidence; schools improve their overall standard of teaching, thus retaining their staff. These are difficult, slow plods up steep, grassy knolls but, over time, the scenery reveals itself.

As we move towards the end of my first year though, the clouds continue to loiter. In a rush to complete schemes of work and achieve the necessary sub-levels of “progress”, students have been spoon-fed content rather than having a chance to build skills.

I’ve seen good teachers criticised for failing to demonstrate “progress” in half hour observations, and many with three to four years’ experience are leaving as they feel under-appreciated and bereft of opportunities to make progress in their careers.

Progress is the mantra of the school, but it’s difficult to reconcile what I see with any meaningful definition of the word like advancement, development or improvement. What is becoming apparent is that the meaning of the word is irrelevant; it’s nothing more than a sub-heading in a policy document. Progress is a process.

For a student, progress means rote learning the keywords needed for a C at GCSE; anything beyond that is not the school’s responsibility. If, as a teacher, I want to demonstrate such progress to my manager, senior staff or Ofsted, all I need to do is follow the process: show the students something they can’t do, tell them how to do it, get them to have another go, preferably on a mini-whiteboard. From the school’s point of view, progress in your career is simply advancing another year on the pay scale.

This is the future of British schools as Michael Gove attempts to transform them into businesses, a move I applauded one year ago. My concern now is that he is turning them into businesses without a long-term strategy.

Paula Radcliffe, the fastest woman in the world over 26 miles, had a notoriously poor running action, and judging her on how she looked over 100m could have deprived Britain of one of its greatest ever athletes. Likewise, by “correcting” teachers to ensure they are able to demonstrate “progress” in a half hour Ofsted inspection lesson, these mini-corporations are depriving our education system of the brightest graduates.

This puppet show, in which the teacher recites a Punch and Judy script to an applauding inspector with the clammy hand of the school’s senior staff up their backside, is hardly an enticing prospect for anyone wishing to bring fresh ideas and aspirations into a classroom.

Gove has long expressed his desire to enhance the prestige of teaching, but his reductionist approach has entirely the opposite effect: anyone forced into practising ideas they manifestly do not believe in first questions their quality as a professional, and later, crucially, the quality of the profession itself.

The archetypal Goveian response is to suggest that there is no alternative to this view of progress if standards are to be raised, but this narrow view ignores the wider issues at stake. A successful business relies on investment, and an acceptance by its shareholders that dividends may not be paid until a few years down the line.

If we continue to focus on short term returns and neglect the long term investment, our education system will be usurped by the lower cost providers of the East. We need to invest in the best people, attracting them to the teaching profession and affording them the opportunity to practise their profession freely for a few years. Only then should we judge them on their progress.

The dividends that may need to be cut are the C grades in today’s old-fashioned, knowledge-based exams, a short-term blow but one which could provide a long-term boost to the UK. If Gove really had a brave vision of progress, he would commit to allowing our brightest graduates to fail.

*Henry Welwyn is a pseudonym 

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