“I was so angry, I had to turn the radio off,” was a common teacher response to last Friday morning’s Radio 4 interview with Katie Ivens from the Campaign for Real Education.
She told listeners of the Today programme that teachers “already have sabbaticals – 13 weeks every year” and declared that it was “not the norm” for teachers to work in their holidays.
“Very often you find that schools are closed in the holidays,” was her conclusive evidence for this. This followed on from her equally extraordinary claim that “questions need to be asked about the quality of teacher training” if teachers feel the need for further training and development during their careers.
In saying such things, Katie unwittingly became a brilliant advertisement for her own declared cause – “real education”. For "questions" surely "need to be asked" of a system where intelligent, well-educated people feel confident to broadcast such ill-informed opinions.
I wish Katie had been with me a few hours later on that same day, as I watched wonderful colleagues finish their school day by escorting 50 of our school’s keenest skateboarders on their annual four-hours-return Friday evening trip to Adrenaline Alley in Corby. The teachers concerned had no interest in skateboarding, just in offering something extra and fun for our students. The students headed off to the coach with their boards, the teachers with their bags full of flasks and Friday-night marking. Back at midnight.
Teachers give up their free time
I also wished Katie had been with me as I – in common with thousands of fellow teachers – spent a full day and a half of the bank holiday marking and preparing further revision resources for the final few days and weeks before the GCSE and A-level exams begin. Katie would indeed have found most schools closed throughout the May bank holiday, but that does not begin to tell the true story.
She could have also joined me that same weekend in taking our son to his Duke of Edinburgh Award weekend. Here – as replicated at other D of E venues across the country – Katie would have met several other school teachers committing another two days of the holiday to hiking, camping and supporting groups of young people on their bronze challenge.
Being with teachers on a D of E weekend would have not only challenged her rather disdainful view of teachers’ work commitment but – in showing how much can be learned outside a classroom – it may have also made her question whether she and the said Campaign really have much idea of what "real education" should be. I am not sure any of us have much idea what "real education" should be, though I do think it might feature a more ambitious vision of the future than the campaign’s ongoing opposition to "progressive" teaching methods and its desire to reintroduce some form of selection.
I happen to believe, for instance, that something like the D of E (made affordable to all) should be a key part of all children’s "real education". I also think that the focus on so-called EBacc subjects is a terrible and outdated representation of "real education", particularly in its marginalisation of creative courses. But that’s merely my view. I wouldn’t feel justified in declaring it to be "real education".
The Campaign for Real Education has existed since 1987, yet its website still complains as if nothing much has changed since then. This is partly because much of the website itself never changes.
On its "Standards" page, for example, the most recent piece of research – on whether standards have improved – was written in 2004 and uses data from 1998 to 2002. If its evidence base is this wafer-thin and its arguments as off-the-mark as Katie’s on Radio 4, then it should not be surprised that the teaching “establishment” tends to ignore it and sometimes turns off in anger.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire