‘Why Tom Bennett is right about the College of Teaching – even if he has changed his mind’

10th March 2016 at 12:25
College of teaching
The ResearchED founder has been a supporter of the idea of a college in the past, writes one of the college’s leading advocates, and his voice, now critical, remains a welcome one

Successfully instigating a major change in education is really hard. I have enormous respect for Tom Bennett as a founder and driving force of the spectacular ResearchED movement.

It espouses the very best of British education: enthusiastic, professional and imaginative with just a whiff of the revolutionary scepticism that we do so well in this country.

It’s in that spirit of respect-verging-on-awe that I note that Tom "don’t call me Tsar" Bennett recently penned a critical piece about the College of Teaching.

I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the idea and I was involved in the early days of set-up, so it probably comes as no surprise that I have some different perspectives. However, what pleased me particularly was that I ended up agreeing with a number of statements that Tom made about the College.

I will be honest, I’ve done some gratuitous cutting and pasting in the next section while ever-so-gently settting to one side a number of buts and howevers – but there are a number of statements where he and I are as one, tucked into our metaphorical edu-bed like Morecambe and Wise.

  • "It appealed to me because it suggested a way for teachers to finally earn/ claw a seat at the Big Table"
  • "The would-be College has adopted in general a sensible approach to winning hearts and minds: I.B. Positive, and buckets of it."
  • "It’s now in the hands of some dedicated teachers"
  • "I believe that through a powerful synthesis of online conversations, new collaborative structures and face to face interactions, we can start to build a shared understanding of all what we do."
  • "If you read the website, you’ll see claims of defining and approving high quality CPD and pathways into professionalism – which is a good thing, incidentally"
  • "It needs teachers to work together, who decide they want to do this."
  • "There is a small and talented band of practising teachers – the most important constituency – who want this to work, and their task now is building a platform of what they believe and then selling that message to the profession"
  • "And if their ideas are good, people will listen. So let’s hear them. "

Cue applause! As Tom acknowledges in his blog, he was a self-confessed early supporter of the idea of the College as his brilliant piece from early 2015 “College of Teaching – if not now, when?” set out.

My favourite piece of that 2015 blog is this:

“I've been campaigning for teacher voice for years. It would be a sin to drop this moment, when so many stars seem to be in alignment that you start to ask if the universe wants this to happen. When funding is in place. When political will is, for once, cross-party. We need to make this work, or we prove we didn't deserve it in the first place.”

Amen to that. For the College to work it needs to persuade all those who are passionate about professional wisdom, research-informed decision-making and autonomy and a real classroom teacher-led approach to grab their shovels and pick-axes and lend their hands to the building effort.

I agree with those above words as strongly now as I did when they were first written, but I recognise that this journey brings with it some doubts and concerns along the way as Tom has expressed.  

I’m hopeful that by listening carefully to all concerns, the trustees of the College will learn a lot and help everyone understand that this project still heaves with the heady excitement and potential that we’ve been looking forward to for some time now and, in doing so, bring many of them back as enthusiasts.

As the College has recently conveyed, the crowd-funding attempt wasn’t the success it was originally hoped. I know that the College’s chair, Claire Dockar, along with her fellow class teachers, headteachers and the others on the board are going to do what all good teachers do – listen and learn from what has happened. It’s just one of the many strings to their bow that has impressed me.

The very design of the College project recognises that it won’t be for everyone. Absolutely fundamental to its design is that it is completely voluntary and that it has no regulatory powers whatsoever.

If you like it, you can join; if you dislike it, you can leave. That remains the most powerful protection in the whole idea. Nobody is compelled to like this and it will inevitably improve both through constructive critiques and through passionate support.

This is exciting. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to build something that could elevate our profession for centuries to come, and to build it right.

Quoting directly from that 2015 blog:

There's a chance here – and I don't care if it's one in ten – that something beautiful and valuable could be built. I think teachers should try to be architects right now. It would make a change. And we don't wait to be allowed. We act, with furious intent. And maybe we can be a profession again, instead of the delivery men and women that entropy, and attrition have tried to make us. This could be a revolutionary act if we make it so. That's certainly something worth trying to achieve.”

Still, while agreement will evolve over time, right now we have respectful, rigorous debate and great research and evaluation as tools to drive the next developments for the teaching profession.

As Tom said in his more recent piece, we don’t need hysterical accusations or ‘project fear’ from any side of the debate. We need sensible conversations because “ideas need to be argued, people need to be convinced”. I completely agree. Vive la différence, explore la différence, I say, hoping not to have injured my GCSE French teacher too badly in the process.

In that spirit I believe that all those deeply involved in the College will welcome Tom’s contribution to the debate, as ever, as they welcome all views.

David Weston is the Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust. He’s a former physics and maths teacher and a current school governor 


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