'Those now in charge of education refuse to accept that teachers alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of poor children'

5th January 2016 at 17:06
Mary Bousted on pupils
This 'New Blob' also ignores the fact that the huge demands of classroom teaching are compounded by bureaucracy – triple-marking, data entry and punitive lesson observations – which frightens, subdues and exhausts teachers

Here, a little late, is my new year's resolution: I will continue to speak and write about what a career as a teacher has become.

Mine is no chocolate box vision of teaching, having spent over 20 years in education, both in schools and in universities and having spent over 10 years representing my members’ experiences as general secretary of ATL. I know, of course, that many teachers and school leaders enjoy their professional lives. They find the rewards of working with children and teenagers to be energising, fulfilling and empowering. These teachers are likely to work in schools where the leadership is supportive, remembers just how long it takes to mark a set of books, and works to establish a collegiate, collaborative atmosphere where teachers' experience and expertise is valued and where there is an expectation that professional conversations, with a range of views, are held regularly. In a nutshell, these are schools where teachers are treated as professionals.

Unfortunately, however, too many teachers will have dreaded the return to school after the Christmas holidays. They are likely to work in schools where the leadership is driven by fear of Ofsted, jumps at the latest nonsense to be spouted by the Department for Education and demands compliance from their teaching staff. In these schools the huge demands of classroom teaching are compounded by layers of bureaucracy – triple-marking, multiple data entries, and a punitive lesson observation schedule, which frightens, subdues and exhausts teachers. And it does something worse; it lowers the standards of teaching and learning as teachers are distracted by bureaucracy. As I have written before, in these schools it is as though nothing has been done unless it is written down – no thinking about differentiation, no attention to special needs. In a nutshell, these are schools where teachers are treated like pupils.

So I will continue, throughout 2016, to write about the epidemic of busy work which is driving so many good teachers from the profession and about the professional culture which would enable more teachers to feel valued and to remain in the profession.

One of the reasons, I think, why my previous TES columns on teacher workload had half a million readers is that it seems to be a topic which is taboo to so many education commentators, whom I group together under the term "the New Blob". The New Blob has replaced Michael Gove's "Blob" – under which name went anyone who disagreed with his educational ideology (and of which I was a proud member).

The New Blob is characterised by education "experts" who have had, at most, a glancing acquaintance with the classroom – some have dipped their toes in teaching for a couple of years, although many of them have never trained or taught. Armed by a general happy oblivion of just how demanding it is to enable real learning and effective progress to be made for those with real children and young people, the New Blob spouts forth frequently with exhortations to teachers about How Things Should Be Done. The New Blob does not want to consider what teaching has become for too many teachers, because it does not fit with its vision of what the profession should be. The New Blob can only deal with a rose-tinted view of teaching which bears only a passing resemblance to the reality of working in too many schools.

The New Blob’s adherents are, overwhelmingly, great adherents of E D Hirsch and his powerful knowledge curriculum. From the heights of their ignorance about the complexities of classroom practice, they accuse anyone who dares to challenge their views of having low expectations for poor and disadvantaged children.

The New Blob is desperate to believe that schools, on their own, can transform children's life chances. The New Blob is affronted when it is pointed out that schools alone cannot compensate for the lost life chances of children and young people who suffer poverty, who live unstable and chaotic lives in poor housing, who come to school hungry, badly clothed and distracted, and who find a narrow academic curriculum, topped off by timed exams, alien to their lives and their interests.

The reality of poverty is unsavoury to the New Blob; its proponents would rather not think about it. You will not find in the New Blob's analysis of the causes of education failure, any acknowledgement of the shameful fact that, in 2016, there are more than 1 million children living a life of persistent poverty, who are, as the government's own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission declares "excluded from sharing in the many opportunities that life in modern Britain affords".

The corrosive effect of inequality passes the New Blob by. Its proponents are, apparently, unconcerned by the uncomfortable truth that, in 2016, there is a growing social divide by income and by class – where the income share of the top 1 per cent has doubled from 6 per cent to 13 per cent since 1979. No, the facts of poverty and inequality are ignored by the New Blob because to engage with this reality would necessitate an acknowledgement of some uncomfortable truths which do not sit easily with the New Blob's political views. It is of little wonder, therefore, that the New Blob are frequent visitors to the Department for Education, where they engage in heated agreement with the views of current education ministers and find themselves regularly chairing DfE enquiries into all manner of educational issues.

So New Blob be warned. You know who you are and you are in my sights. I will challenge you when you spout nonsense, based on ignorance, about the practical realities of teaching and learning and I will expose the unpleasant truth of the real and lasting effects of poverty and inequality on educational attainment, however alien these are to your belief system.

And this, I now realise, is another new year's resolution.

Dr Mary Bousted (pictured) is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She tweets at @maryboustedATL

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