‘If every teacher influences school policy, you get better results than Attila-the-Hun-style leadership’

27th March 2015 at 10:30


Writing ahead of the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, John Bangs, senior consultant at Education International, writes:

At the beginning of next week something remarkable will be happening in a snowy ski resort in the Canadian Rockies. Something that could have major implications for the teachers across the globe. The fifth annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession will be taking place in Banff. It will be hosted by the Canadian Council of Ministers with the summit's long-term partners Education International and the OECD.

This will be the fifth such summit; the first four having taken place around the world. They are remarkable because there is no other gathering like it. For two days every year, teacher union leaders and ministers of education sit down together and work out common goals for teacher policy for the coming year. The themes the summits have previously discussed have ranged from teacher union involvement in education reform and school leadership to teacher evaluation and supporting children and teachers in the toughest schools.

This year, 16 countries will be discussing innovation, leadership in schools and teacher confidence. Countries as diverse as the US, Japan, Sweden, Poland, New Zealand and mainland China are going to be there.

And what about the UK? In contrast to the countries attending the summit, apparently the Westminster government believes the summit is a low priority. Instead, for the second year running, it has asked the Scottish government to represent the UK’s education systems. Indeed, last year Scotland’s previous education minister, Michael Russell, was on duty; Michael Gove was not.

Is it a talking shop? Not if governments and unions buy into their own agreements. For example, at last year’s summit the Danish government and unions agreed to re-establish dialogue and cooperation after a damaging industrial dispute. Finland agreed to create life-long learning opportunities for teachers. And in 2012, the US education secretary, Arne Duncan, claimed that if it hadn’t been for the summit, he wouldn’t have persuaded Obama to agree a significant federal boost for teacher training and development.

So what’s new about this year’s summit? It will be able draw on a range of new evidence from the OECD’s Talis and Pisa reports and EI’s study on teacher leadership, alongside major new analyses of teacher policy by leading researchers Linda Darling-Hammond and Michael Fullan. For the first time, we know that there is a direct link between a confident teaching profession with high levels of self-efficacy and high levels of student achievement. This may not be new to teachers, but it hasn’t been confirmed in research before.  

It has also been confirmed for the first time that distributed leadership in schools, where every teacher has the opportunity to influence school practice and policies, is better for school outcomes than the "Attila the Hun" model of school leadership. So strong is the evidence of the benefits of teacher leadership that OECD and Education International have similarly proposed that governments provide guidance on distributed leadership and decision-making at a system level.

What else do we now know? That there is a strong link between paying teachers properly and an education system’s success. That there is a strong link between professional collaboration between teachers and teachers’ self-efficacy and job satisfaction. That the higher class sizes become, the greater the likelihood is of teacher shortages. And, most obviously, that poor pupil behaviour undermines teachers’ self-efficacy and confidence.

It is one thing for teachers and their unions to make these arguments and quite another for the OECD and leading academics confirm them with evidence. When this evidence is combined with the OECD finding five years ago that there is a strong correlation between strong pro-active teacher unions and an education system’s success, the conditions are right for some radical rethinking on policies affecting teachers.

The argument made by many countries that education reform should be imposed on teachers by governments and underpinned by high-stakes accountability systems now looks untenable. New questions are now being asked. How well are governments, teachers and their unions working as partners in reform? Should there be a contractual entitlement for teachers to have their views heard and respected? Is evaluation stifling or enhancing innovation and creativity? Shouldn’t governments and teachers collaborate on evaluation?

These, and many other questions will be discussed in Banff. I hope all governments not attending will at least listen.


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