Skip to main content

Talking standards: 'Schools and teachers can, and do, make a difference, but they can’t make all the difference'

Scottish educationalist David Cameron (pictured left) continues his debate with former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse (right)

News article image

Dear Tim,

Thanks for your reply. I think you have just upped our collective game.

There is so much in it that I want to come back to, but I want to start with the issues about teachers and teaching. The present situation of teacher shortage across the United Kingdom is frightening and it is also an utter condemnation of government policies. You often talk about the change in the powers of the secretary of state for education in Westminster. You refer to the three that were associated with the post:

  • The removal of air raid shelters from school playgrounds.
  • The assurance of a fair distribution of adequate school buildings.
  • The guarantee of an adequate supply of qualified teachers.

I know that my terminology is less than exact, but that should not diminish the surprise that, while the post has gathered powers like a demented Brownie on a quest for badges, it is the latter two, and particularly the last, that have been jettisoned.

One wonders if all of the rhetoric about the possibility, at times, the desirability, of deploying unqualified staff in the classroom – who needs expertise, when one has knowledge and enthusiasm? – is a cynical response to scarcity. Similarly, the commitment to more free schools smacks of summoning the cavalry to rescue the failure to make adequate provision in any other way.

I often wonder how advocates of this approach would respond if they were offered a surgical procedure conducted by someone who was unqualified, but knew a lot about medicine and had a real passion for it. I am not sure if “Of course! Give them the scalpel” would be the immediate reaction.

This is part of the problem. How we regard the profession is important in both recruitment and retention. Graham Donaldson’s report on teacher education in Scotland, “Teaching Scotland’s Future” was resolutely focussed on enhancing teacher professionalism. Its ambition was for a Master’s Level profession and, while there are issues with that, it is surely a more attractive prospect than joining a profession apparently capable of replacement by experts with no understanding of the learning process, child development or basic pedagogy. I think we tried that with Jamie Oliver’s Dream School in a recent television series and found ourselves no strangers to the nightmare.

The main reason for my frustration and anger about all of this is that you are absolutely right about the real springboard for improved performance by learners. Teacher effect is much more powerful than school effect. I might even be tempted to argue that the main impact of school effect is how far it affects teachers’ performance. Despite this we still continue to focus on making judgements at school level.

How does it feel to be a very good teacher in a school that has been condemned as a failure? There must be demoralisation by proxy. Indeed, the whole approach to accountability has to be a factor in recruitment and retention. I remember hearing you speak at a conference in York a couple of years ago, where you followed an inspector from Ofsted. My comment then was that we had heard one contributor with a vision of educational improvement based on inspiration and trust expressed in the language of literature and poetry. We had heard another outlining an alternative based on threat and exposure, delivered in the language of Orwellian doublespeak, where “satisfactory” could not possibly mean “satisfactory”, but required to be translated into “this will never do”. We might offer any readers, that we have, the chance to win a prize for determining which was which.

I know that you like Matthew Syed’s writing and hope that you read his recent article in The Times –“How to blame less and learn more” – where he mounts a coruscating attack on this culture. His analysis of the response to the “Baby P” case is powerful and persuasive. We are getting closer to the Medieval culture of “the crops have failed, let’s burn the witch!”

We can always obviate responsibility by attributing blame, which is another significant issue for me.

In both Scotland and England, we seem utterly committed to the concept of raising educational attainment as a means of tackling poverty. A key part of Iain Duncan Smith’s strategy is based on dealing with the underlying causes of poverty, including educational attainment, rather than addressing the symptoms through the benefits system. After all, we can rely on food banks and the Big Society (which has gone strangely quiet of late) to do that. Teachers become the shock troops of social change and face “attainment challenges” the length and breadth of Britain. This surely has an impact on staffing issues.

I am not the first to argue that schools and teachers can, and do, make a difference, but they can’t make all the difference. We need to do more to create the conditions in which that difference can be made. When I worked in Stirling we took an integrated approach to regeneration in the Raploch area. That meant improved housing stock, new school buildings, integrated provision with Forth Valley College, environmental enhancement, better infrastructure and cultural investment. The most obvious example of the last point was the Big Noise where we worked with El Systema, the Venezuelan approach of offering children the chance to learn to play a musical instrument and be part of a classical orchestra. The whole country had the chance to see the fruits of that when the Big Noise Orchestra launched the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.

I still feel that the Scottish approach through “Getting it right for every child” with the emphasis on inter-agency cooperation and a multi-faceted approach to tackling the consequences of poverty was far more likely to bring success. It also left teachers less exposed and far better supported. That has to be a key to unleashing the potential that our teachers clearly have, we need to do more to support them.

I know that I have moved from your very helpful and specific recipe for supporting staff. I would like to return to that in a later letter. I am also aware that there will be those who argue that we cannot invest in our future in the way that I describe because of the economic difficulties that we face. I suppose my argument here is that, if we are not prepared to make this sort of investment and take collective responsibility for addressing inequality, we cannot demand that teachers tackle its effects on their own and be ready to condemn when they don’t always succeed. That doesn’t help our recruitment and retention and may mean that valiant efforts at staff development never fully bear fruit.

As ever, I look forward to hearing from you,



Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you