I’ve never seen a single programme about British education that better captured why teachers are leaving the profession than episode 3 of BBC Two's School this week.
It highlighted an interesting debate on what’s causing the crisis: funding? Ofsted and accountability systems? Or school leadership?
I’ve made clear my view on this – above everything else, it’s the unjust and intense pressure on teachers to impact the progress of their students day in, day out, that is at the root of the crisis.
Yes, that’s facilitated and in many cases exacerbated by leadership decisions, but many of those come about due to the pressure to “do something” to increase progress – whether that be more observations or accountability systems or by introducing a whole new raft of interventions.
It’s my belief that without the threat of a poor Ofsted grading due to poor student outcomes, everyone would relax a whole lot more. I know this first-hand after teaching the past few years in an international environment. Yes, there are still those typical stressors that make teaching an innately tiring job, but behind them isn’t the threat of losing pay progression, a job or professional reputation.
In this particular episode, you see headteacher Mr Pope under intense pressure, operating in difficult circumstances. At the end of the programme, he resigns because of an Ofsted report, citing personal reasons. He seemed broken and I personally felt immense sympathy for him, as I did for everyone else in the school.
Pressure on teachers for results
You can’t help but feel it’s what the inspectorate wanted, or at least knew was going to happen, when Mr Pope announced his departure to staff on the back of the interim inspection report which bemoaned lack of progress since the previous visit 12 weeks before.
Minutes after we see his resignation, we learn that the assistant headteacher for teaching and learning has also left.
Of course, these inspections were carried out within Ofsted’s current framework, one where “outcomes” have trumped everything else.
Mr Pope isn’t the first headteacher to walk away in these circumstances – we could “fill a few buses” with Mr Popes. What a bloody waste.
Ofsted chief executive Amanda Spielman favours a turn away from data towards curriculum and its impact – hence Ofsted’s “quality of education” replacing outcomes as a measure. Nevertheless, she also confirmed, writing to the Commons Education Select Committee, that outcomes would still play a major role in inspection.
Either way, subjective, non-contextual judgements are likely to continue and Ofsted will still promote the downloading of the “outstanding” banner from its Twitter account.
Another aspect of the programme which really upset me was the observation and feedback to the head of the humanities faculty. After the observation, the teacher said that he felt there was an expectation for each lesson to be "world class".
In the feedback session following the observation, when the teacher said “It wasn’t terrible though?”, the observer said “no” very unconvincingly. She then said that if an Ofsted inspector were in the room, she would have had concerns.
Of course, we don’t know the back story leading up to the observation, what happened in the entirety of the lesson and the other pressures that the teacher was under. But what we did see following the process was a highly deflated teacher left feeling as though they weren’t doing a very good job.
As he shuffled around the room, alone, picking up bits of paper, you could sense the withdrawn sadness of the man, a man who obviously cared deeply about the students and the job he was doing and who was seemingly given the message – "you aren’t good enough".
Back in the headteacher’s office, they mooted blending two groups together to create a class of 40-plus students (a plan which it was revealed didn’t have to be implemented).
The stark impact of cuts in UK education was brought into focus during this chilling conversation as three MFL teachers were almost disbelieving of what was being proposed. As the number of students in British schools rises and funding continues to stutter, these scenarios could be much more commonplace.
While the top 15 chiefs at Ofsted took home bonuses of in excess of £50,000 between them for 2017-18 “performance”, this school pays £200 a pop for supply teachers, called in as teachers drop like flies under the pressure. I feel sick, do you?
After the programme, social media was littered with teachers utterly frustrated at what they’d seen.
Mary Bousted, of the NEU teaching union, perhaps captured the vibe best when she said: “Watching #School is unbearable. The humiliation and distress heaped on the headteacher and his staff is appalling. How can this improve standards?”
My answer is this – start by abolishing Ofsted. Save £134 million a year. Create an informal school-to-school peer-review system in its place. Second, scrap any accountability measures based primarily on student outcomes. That’s it. Save money and retain teachers.
On the money front, I’m not really sure what the answer is, but with more teachers entering and staying in UK teaching, the money saved would be huge. Fewer Department for Education adverts costing thousands, fewer bursaries to try and persuade people to go in, fewer far-flung and desperate schemes to try and keep teachers in.
They’d just want to stay if they could get on with their jobs with some peace of mind. I hope Damian Hinds and Amanda Spielman were watching.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue