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'Let’s celebrate, not denigrate our schools'

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There is in this country a prevailing narrative of education being a broken, failing system that needs to be fixed. Not a day goes by, it seems, without someone taking a swipe at schools and teachers.

The latest criticism, which is not new (it dates back to 2007 and the Labour government), is that they are “coasting”, that is, proceeding without making much effort. It is a suggestion that sits uneasily with the Department for Education’s acknowledgement of a workload crisis.

This week, adding insult to injury, employment minister Priti Patel used both terms to defend the government’s cuts to the welfare budget. “We have to ensure that we invest more in education to stop our schools from failing…to ensure that our education system doesn’t just coast along,” she told Sky News.

Like the line about inheriting a mess from Labour (she used that one, too), this description of our schools is trotted out at every opportunity. Repeated enough, it eventually enters the nation’s consciousness as an established fact.

But away from the corridors of power, in the corridors of our schools, the reality is very different – as anyone who attended last week’s TES Schools Awards will attest. Teachers and schools are achieving amazing things, day in, day out. They don’t ask for praise; and, sadly, most of the time they don’t get it either.

These awards were a celebration, not a denigration, of our schools – a spotlight on all that is good in education and a break from the usual focus on the small amount that is bad. It’s worth mentioning again that the latest Ofsted figures reveal that the number of schools judged good or outstanding is at a record high of 82 per cent – with 83 per cent of primaries and 73 per cent of secondaries rated accordingly. This figure rises to 89 per cent when it comes to special schools. 

At the awards night, we heard of heads and teachers battling adversity to deliver excellence against the odds, of spectacular academic turnarounds and of boundaries being pushed through innovative teaching.

There were teachers with a humbling dedication to their profession, such as the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Pamela Kavanagh, who has spent nearly 40 years in the same Manchester school teaching children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

And if there is any sector of teaching that does not get the recognition it deserves, it’s SEND. So it was particularly gratifying to see the best alternative provision school also winning the overall school of the year accolade and the teacher blogger of the year title going to Nancy Gedge, who writes so eloquently about her life as a teacher and the mother of a son with Down’s syndrome.

“The story of SEND is so little told in the rhetoric of the big voices in education,” she said in an impromptu speech. The good news is that Ms Gedge can change that: she’s now one of those big voices.

It was an honour to pay tribute to our teachers and schools last Friday and, do you know what? It felt good, too. The government might like to try it some time.

Read more news and views in the 26 June issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents. 

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