'I've been in education for over 20 years, led in four different schools, and yet my voice is lost in the wind'

19th July 2016 at 14:37
Education policy
Policy is nothing without practice. It must resonate with the true education experts – teachers and headteachers, says one school leader

"If speaking is silver, then listening is gold." Turkish Proverb

When Michael Gove said "People in this country have had enough of experts", I really tried to work out what he meant:

  1. Experts are liars?
  2. Knowledge and experience are unhelpful in solving future problems?
  3. Experts don’t want to improve our futures and so use their knowledge to block progress?
  4. Or that Mr Gove, like some absorptive blob, could suck the very knowledge from the most skilled and use it like a superpower alongside his political genius – who needs an expert when you have a Gove?

I then stopped daydreaming and came back to reality. What I think Mr Gove was really trying to explain to us in this statement is: "I know more than the experts". The political landscape no longer appears to listen to the skilled craftsman or the people who need it most. It would seem that politicians now accept that they are the experts in almost everything.

They can cherry-pick views that support their own ideas and, abracadabra, a new policy backed by some expert with a degree in ergonomics. The type of person who will tell you there’s never been a better time to be a teacher and glosses over poorer pay and conditions, increased workload and low retention rates.

The rise of pseudo-experts

Education is rampant with pseudo-experts like Mr Gove. People who have never taught a class of 30, planned a lesson, dealt with attachment conditions, worked within the most deprived communities, met the accountability standards, tried to educate beyond the core subjects in an ever-tighter testing regime, cared for families in crisis, marked 60 books a day, met with parents in an ever more hostile environment, worked weekly 50-plus hours a week or learned to differentiate between a preposition and a subordinating conjunction. This is only a small sample of a teacher’s life but no one is more qualified and experienced in this world. So, why is the teacher’s voice so distant?

It appears even the head of Ofsted (the teaching and learning watchdog) does not need to have been a teacher to be the department’s spokesperson. Therefore, do we place more value on people’s position to express their views than the actual views? This is especially valuable if those views expressed support the views of government policy. There can be nothing as irksome as the opposite, it would seem. Why are we so powerless to address the real issues behind why we seem to be unable to work in unison?

Trust and fear

I feel that we need to look at two areas: trust and fear. There is little trust between us – teachers, civil servants and the government. This is a real shame. We all want the same thing but one of us has the top trump.

There is a real sense of fear that our education system is failing our children. This is based on league tables and statistics from tests – little else. We can only address this fear by improving within these very narrow fields. I think there is also "fear" of teachers: that deep down we are all Labour loving, left-wing crazies who want a form of utopian socialism within our education system. Therefore, we need to keep teachers' views in a lead box at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

I have been in education for more than 20 years and a headteacher for 12. I have led in four different schools (from special measures to outstanding) and taught across the South of England. I have a wealth of experience and yet I feel that my voice is lost in the wind.

I look to education and all I see is a thousand organisations and departments and they all want what is best and they all do this, from a distance. This really needs a rethink. You only have to attend a Northern Rocks, Primary Rocks or TeachMeet to understand what a wealth of knowledge and skills there really is in education today. The vast majority of this knowledge is practice-led. Policy is nothing without practice, policy needs to resonate with the teaching profession and I feel it has lost touch because it seems so at odds with what is really needed in our schools.

This generation of teachers deserve more credit. They share and discuss practice, they disagree but listen to help form their arguments and they are open to what works as they adapt their teaching (sometimes a little too easily) to cater for the "best practice" out there.

They are also our children’s greatest champions. I have never met a teacher who does not want the best for the children they teach; who knows them beyond the boundaries of six hours a day.

Despite all this, it seems that we do not trust them to shape and form national practice and we are not really listening to them. If we did then things would change.

A stronger voice for teachers

This does not mean that we will all stop testing, that phonics will disappear overnight or there will be a £10K pay rise. Teachers are becoming research-led in their practice because they are listening to evidence from across the sector and from around the world. They are building up incredible knowledge and applying it to the skills they already have. They are best placed to truly understand what really works in classrooms up and down our county. They are the education experts and quite frankly I could not get enough of them.

I do not want a cull in pseudo-experts. I believe that they have a real role to play in asking the tough questions and ensuring that views are expressed and developed at a national level. What I do want is a stronger teacher’s voice in policy development and, more importantly – policy implementation. This would stop the twitter rants, bloggers with beef (ahem) and other no-good busybodies ranting after every single White Paper or ministerial announcement.

To do this we will need to engage with the profession (at grass roots level) and begin to trust that teachers really do want the best for our country. To do this politicians need to talk less and listen more.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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