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‘Pupils don’t want you to give them a better life: they just want you to teach them’

Joe Nutt, educational consultant, researcher and author, writes:

"I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a UK education conference and, without giving anything away, the challenging brief the organisers gave me has made me think very hard about why the current schools landscape feels like a Flanders field to navigate.

As any working teacher knows, the profession has been in a constant state of reform for decades. After such sustained efforts from all shades of government, policy makers and strategists, one would hope things should have changed for the better. Signing off from his editorship at this magazine a few months ago, Gerard Kelly writes: “Contrary to most reports, teaching in Britain has never been in better health”, something I’ve observed government is equally eager to assert (in spite of what teacher unions might say).

But I disagree.

Yes, the profession has attracted better-qualified graduates. Yes, teachers are better rewarded for their work. Yes, schools are better equipped and resourced, but – like the clever child who spots the emperor in the nuddy – Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa) results, UK exam results and what employers say about the quality of school leavers seem to yell otherwise. And I think I know why.

Spend time studying what schools have to say about themselves or how the morass of education charities and commercial organisations describe themselves; you find a single, dominant theme: it is the belief that a teacher’s job is to engineer social change.

Even Teach First – an organisation I admire and one that has contributed substantially to the improvements I’ve already referred to – is fuelled and motivated by this widespread misapprehension. “How much you achieve in life should not be determined by how much your parents earn,” Teach First screams in huge, bold capital letters from its website.

With equal enthusiasm, although somewhat tautologically, the C fBT Education Trust claims, “we transform the lives of learners for millions of children and young people worldwide”. The Sutton Trust, one of the most frequently cited and successful charities influencing educational policy in recent years, is unapologetically dedicated to “improving social mobility through education”.

Before your hackles rise any further and you start to assume I object to these laudable aims, let me stress that I don’t. I have every sympathy with all three of these organisations, the thousands of people who work for them and others like them who believe that this is their mission. It’s just the wrong mission, which is why Pisa and UK exam results will remain stubbornly resistant to their efforts.

One of the things that helped me reach this conclusion is the recent dramatic growth of interest in educational research and its impact on schools, teachers and children. Evidence-based change has never been more popular in education, a fact exemplified by the researchED conference organised earlier this year at Dulwich College. Tired of being on the receiving end of so much strategising, the grassroots emerged from the Flanders mud to assert their professional authority. In their words, the theme of the conference was simple: "Working out what works".

So what does work? In a bleak landscape where so many powerful forces have gathered together under the banner of social change, why are so many schools and teachers still mired in doubt, confusion and even failure? They are fighting the wrong battle in the wrong place.

One of the few things that researchers seem to agree on about education is that excellent teachers matter, that the professional quality of the people who stand up in front of children day after day has some impact on how well children do at school and, consequently, on their future lives. And this is where I’m prepared to step on new, firmer ground. A previous employer commissioned me to look at what the international research had to say about subject-specialist excellence. I asked the question: what does the research say about what makes an excellent English teacher, historian, chemist or linguist? What I discovered, besides the fact that there is a staggering shortage of research of this kind, was fascinating.

It is fundamentally a teacher’s subject knowledge and their “passion” that researchers identify as the key characteristics of excellent teachers. And, like the politicians keen to reminisce about them, anyone fortunate enough to have been taught by an excellent teacher remembers those skills with delight and gratitude.

They aren’t driven by a desire to change the world or social order: they leave that to others better qualified. They are driven by a desire to create new linguists, great historians, groundbreaking scientists, brilliant literary critics and, where it is impossible, to send the children lucky enough to be taught by them out into the world better armed, with just a little of their passion and knowledge. That’s what works.

If you think when you stand up in front of a classroom full of children put in front of you to learn maths, geography, or music that your job is to give them a better life, be in no doubt: the children don’t. They just want you to teach them maths, geography or music. They’ll find that better life for themselves if you do.

The well-meaning organisations and individuals so keen on declaring their mission to deliver social change could instead turn their attention instead to understanding, supporting and delivering excellent teachers into more classrooms. If they were to do that, then perhaps those truculent statistics politicians have little choice but to lean on might actually start leaning in the right direction."

You can email Joe at:

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