Let's liberate the expertise of the classroom teacher

Subject teachers are paying the price for the top-down management model that persists in schools, says Yvonne Williams

teacher at whiteboard

In the past few weeks, the main education story has been about desperate attempts to buy curriculum intent statements from consultants or off the internet, as schools face a new Ofsted framework that will be more demanding than a mere focus on results. 

That we should have reached such a low point speaks of a disturbing lack of confidence within schools, and among their leaders and teachers.


Background: Schools buying 'very poor' online advice for Ofsted

Ofsted: 'Curriculum is important, but it isn't everything'

Opinion: 'There are dangers lurking in the new Ofsted framework'


Surely, it’s time to review the way in which "expertise" is fed into the system. It is shortsighted to rely on so-called experts or consultants, or to restrict any opportunities for pedagogical and professional development to people in the upper echelons of multi-academy trusts. Subject teachers – the hard-working pack-horses of the profession – are paying the price for the top-down management model that has persisted for so long.

But how can the individual expertise of the classroom teacher be liberated and developed? 

Interest in the curriculum

All too often, it’s assumed that managerial training is the way forward – certainly, it’s the kind most commonly funded. But we need to show more interest in the curriculum.

Within university education departments, there reside a number of highly influential researchers. But as the surprising results of a Year 6 experiment with Carol Dweck’s growth mindset only this week show, even her input has limited application. Good research takes place within classrooms and is replicable elsewhere, in as many contexts as possible. 

But it needs self-confident professionals to evaluate the findings and decide how to make them work in their own classrooms – and professional discernment to distinguish the genuine way forward from the false dawn. The rise and demise of gimmicks such as learning styles and brain gym show how easily teachers flock round plausible initiatives, only to find them later debunked. 

Expertise cannot reside solely with influential individuals, nor should it be left to chance. Cultural change is long overdue. If the current poor retention figures are anything to go by, young teachers have had enough of being the drudges, confined by workload and lacking opportunities for advancement. We need schools to stop being hierarchical businesses and go back to being learning organisations. 

So what can be offered?

  1. The most enlightened academy trusts run a full programme of day courses taught by experts in-house and from outside. With the agreement of their school leaders, teachers can sign up for those that match their career stage and aspirations most closely. 
  2. There are longer courses, which lead to classroom research and sharing of findings with the entire cohort.
  3. Awards for high-quality research inspire and reward initiative and secure methodology. 
  4. Many teachers can contribute to current debate. Some schools run an online newsletter or magazine aimed at parents and teachers, which include articles on research they find particularly thought-provoking, as well as information about recent training and its impact in the classroom.
  5. Staff should be encouraged to be part of working groups on the academic and pastoral curriculum, supported by training from outside experts where financially possible.
  6. In recent times, our school has encouraged trios of teachers to work together. The English department has worked with art and design technology to research creativity through interviewing students, reading more widely and observing each other’s practice in the classroom before finalising their findings. It’s also possible for teachers working on individual projects from very different disciplines – such as religious studies and psychology or English and chemistry – to collaborate, support and observe one another.
  7. Teachers who are confident in their teaching could be encouraged to become subject mentors to PGCE teachers. This increases their understanding of what works in the classroom, and of how to work with less experienced colleagues. Often, the mentoring results in considerable self-reflection. People learn side by side.
  8. Productive partnerships between schools and universities can lead to the collaborative writing of articles. There is much to be gained from informal discussion about wider issues, including the university tutor’s own research area. At its very best, this is a two-way system. 
  9. As curriculum initiatives are mooted, departments should be encouraged to apply the school’s curriculum approach in their own ways, embracing a common vision while being trusted to use their specific specialist knowledge to apply the vision most fruitfully to their particular disciplines. 
  10. Some enlightened schools set up posts that allow teachers in the earlier stages of their careers, who have shown promise, to act as teaching and learning leaders. They should be allocated time on their timetables to go into lessons and hold discussions with colleagues to further learning.

Open to experience

Ideally, every classroom teacher would be allocated a sum of money each year to put towards a developmental activity of their own choice. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more enlightened companies did just that. Unfortunately, there is not enough money today.

Instead, schools and academy trusts should be much more open to the wide variety of experiences that teachers bring to their organisations, and more alert to the opportunities that these contribute to the school’s overall expertise. We have to shift from the narrowed vision of managerial hierarchies, which rely too heavily on ideas from the top, towards more collegiate structures, which contain expertise at every level. This is necessary if we are to keep education relevant, professionalise teachers and (one for the politicians) remain competitive in a global economy. 

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and Drama in a school in the South of England

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