You could argue that this has been a week of bad news in education (as it has in the ongoing Brexit omnishambles).
Following on the heels of Stephen Tierney, another blogger and leader of school leaders, Ros McMullen has had enough. She’s retiring early, not least because she “has simply had enough of having to do more with less, unintelligent and damaging accountability systems, constantly moving goalposts and supporting outstanding headteachers who are treated as the whipping boys for all the failings of social policy”.
Next came the revelation that the UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage withdrew a number of students from their chemistry A-level exam after they did badly in their mock exams before Easter.
Closer to home, I was chatting last weekend with my friend Jim, who teaches a Year 2 class in a village primary school. Notwithstanding several years’ experience under his belt, he’s currently anxious about his class’ Sats results. He’s worked out that, if just one of his weaker students scores less than 80 per cent overall, he’ll miss his performance target. And the consequence? No move up the pay scale.
Heads are under pressure, if not actual compulsion, to operate performance-related pay (PRP) within robust management systems. In the hard-nosed, cash-strapped world of UK education in 2019 (where two-thirds of teachers have not received the government’s promised 3.5 per cent pay rise after a decade-long freeze), most academies have introduced PRP, using financial rewards, or penalties, as “motivation” for teachers.
Jim is a committed teacher and so hard-working that I find myself, newly enjoying the freedom of post-headship retirement, telling him off (as only friends can) for doing too much. But even Jim, enthusiastic and still idealistic, knows he probably won’t get the pay rise – a slap in the face for someone who can’t do more – and certainly cannot do the impossible.
At whole-school level, there was the primary head who told me she couldn’t hope to hit the required government target of 96 per cent attendance after a flu epidemic swept through her early years section. Will the new Ofsted framework continue to require such misses to limit any overall judgement to less than good? I’m not hopeful of change.
'Defending the indefensible'
Simplistic judgements and inflexible, absurd targets hurt individual teachers, as well as whole schools and their heads. A teacher like Jim is hit in the wallet; schools are labelled and shamed, and heads roll. Small wonder that not only frontline teachers, but even successful, high-profile and widely admired heads like Stephen and Ros are getting out – tired of, in the words of the latter, “defending the indefensible”, as the school’s figurehead and public face is required to do.
Alas, the indefensible sometimes includes heads under the unbearable twin pressures of accountability and underfunding succumbing to temptation and taking the line of least resistance.
Despite widespread professions of outrage, who is really surprised when yet another school withdraws from exams a group of pupils who might pull down its overall exam score? Like the off-rolling loudly condemned by Ofsted, policymakers and media, we all know it’s wrong. But critics aren’t necessarily living with the pressure that begets those perverse incentives to behave in that way.
How many heads, trying to stretch an inadequate budget, are tempted to set their staff unattainable targets to prevent the salary bill from growing (or even to shrink it, as is happening in many primaries)? How often might individual teachers “help” their class in their Sats, if next year’s salary depends on it?
I applaud multi-academy trust CEO Jane Millward, who is scrapping PRP in E-Act’s schools, acting on her knowledge that it doesn’t work. Hats off, too, to all those heads who continue to fight the fight, and to those who finally decide they can’t go on, but find the courage to speak out.
When will ministers and their advisers pull their heads out of the sand and heed those persistent and consistent voices of genuine concern? Not soon, it seems.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford