This weekend, I’ll be speaking at a Saturday conference, for no recompense, attended by over 100 teachers who have also chosen to attend – indeed, to pay a small amount to do so – to talk education. I don’t know other professions well enough, but there can’t be many careers where people are so willing to give up their free time for professional discussions. Much less those whose workload is as demanding as that of a teacher.
Perhaps, though, that goes some way to explaining the popularity of such events. This particular shindig happens to be one of the final Learning First events that have been criss-crossing the country for the past couple of years. Back in 2016, when we were all in the dark about assessment and testing, Alison Peacock and Julie Lilly decided that we should take a lead as a profession and put learning first.
Since then, I’ve attended several weekend events where teachers have discussed how we can improve our work in schools. In stark contrast to the sense we sometimes get from our high-stakes accountability arrangements, the professionalism of teachers is in rude health. I’m not at all worried about the capacity of the profession to improve itself.
The topic of my talk this weekend will be “professional trust”. What I am sometimes concerned about is our willingness to trust one another.
First, let’s trust our colleagues to teach. It’s a strange job we do, in that we each enter our own little room each day and have fairly limited contact with others doing a similar role. And sometimes that leads us to make mistakes in our judgements. Who of us hasn’t at one time or another let the thought cross their mind that another teacher hasn’t done their job properly. Perhaps in those early months of the year when the children claim never to have seen a newspaper report, or that they never saw column methods used in Mrs Morgan’s class.
The truth is, we also know that children make the same claims and denials six months later about things that we know perfectly well we’ve taught them ourselves. We rattle through such a massive curriculum during their time with us, is it any wonder some things go by the wayside?
Wouldn’t it be better if we focused our whole-school curriculum plans on what really matters, and then trusted one another to do our bit? Even if Year 3 never look at newspapers, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been taught the skills and ideas that will help them to write a good one. And maybe Mrs Morgan never did get round to column subtraction, because she knew that her time would be better spent on securing place value knowledge. If we really trust one another, we should be able to say as much to one another.
That means trusting one another’s assessment, too. This is a two-way deal. If we’re passing children from one teacher to another, with scores or bands or labels of some sort, then they’ve got to mean something.
That means being honest with ourselves about judgements, and with our colleagues. When you’re wavering over whether a child is really secure in their use of paragraphs, try not to think about whether it’ll turn them green on the spreadsheet, but instead about what it would be useful for next year’s teacher to know.
And that means that those of us in leadership roles need to make sure that the focus is on information that our colleagues can trust, not numbers that make the graphs go up. Then we’ll really have professional trust.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979