Developing teachers is only way to reform

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Structural sideshow is distracting the coalition Government from what the chalkface really needs

In the controversy created by the Academies Bill, there lurks a fundamental question which seems unrecognised and unaddressed. While there is much rhetoric about teacher liberation, what strategy does the Government have for the future of the teaching profession?

The forthcoming Education and Children's Bill promises changes on accountability, the curriculum and pupil behaviour. Despite Education Secretary Michael Gove's warm endorsement of the McKinsey report's aphorism that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers, there has been little input from him about how teachers should be supported in their learning and self-confidence.

His recent National College speech contained positive references to the importance of robust research on pedagogy and the need to develop a culture of professional development. It did not, however, contain any proposals on how they could be achieved.

The Government needs to understand that the McKinsey report's statement is not rhetoric. Realising it means giving a top priority to supporting teachers as a national community. It may find the idea of Swedish-style free schools, selling their curricula and programmes to other schools attractive, but it would fracture the collective knowledge of educational developments into thousands of school-based silos.

The coalition Government's lack of a strategy for teachers is not usual. In recent times, no government, including Labour, has had such an overview.

Over the years there have been attempts, such as the literacy and numeracy strategies, to influence classroom practice, yet their efficacy in many teachers' eyes was blighted by imposition and the sense that they were prescribed for political purposes.

The pre-eminent "structural" attempt to alter practice, the School Workforce Agreement, is looking increasingly untenable. A number of research reports - two of which were commissioned by the Labour Government - concluded that the agreement had not reduced workload (London Metropolitan University); that standards are undermined as a result of the misuse of support staff (Institute of Education); and that disempowering managerialism has increased (University of Leicester). Cambridge University's 2006 report for teaching union the NUT noted that children with special educational needs were particularly losing out.

Only David Blunkett's short-lived Professional Development Strategy, which provided training money directly to teachers, sought to place decision- making about professional learning in teachers' hands.

Yet, internationally, there have been major developments in thinking about where teachers ought to be going. The OECD's Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS) asks the right questions about the relationship between teacher performance, self-efficacy, professional development and initial training.

The irony is that we know what works for teachers. Teachers want feedback, but not in a climate of threat. Peer tutoring is remarkably effective, as is collaborative, sustained professional development. According to TALIS, teachers value most the professional development they receive the least; that is, collaborating on research which focuses on what works in their schools.

Yet, cutting teachers' professional development funding has been the default position for governments. This is ominous given the enormous variation in the percentages spent by individual schools on professional development, as evidence to the Education Select Committee revealed. Proposed deep cuts and the Academies Bill will exacerbate this inequity as free local authority-run professional development disappears.

Instead of the damaging sideshow of structural reform, the Government must focus on the needs of teachers and support staff.

The Government should recognise that teachers must own their learning. The James report of 40 years ago, that teachers should have a one-term sabbatical every seven years, needs reviving. As part of a national Professional Development Strategy (PDS), teachers should be able to choose their CPD and receive an annual funded entitlement for it.

One effect of the axing of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies will be to break up a vital body of knowledge about pedagogy.

No evidence exists that performance-related pay raises standards. Its main contribution has been to bureaucratise appraisal, pay progression and the allocation of professional development. Instead, the Scottish Chartered Teacher model, which is based on professional development, should be explored.

It is clear that the one-size-fits-all Masters in Teaching and Learning inhibits early professional development. It needs radical rethinking. Any masters programme should be linked to an entitlement to a sabbatical for experienced teachers and not imposed on teachers fresh out of initial training.

International ideas need looking into, such as the Finnish model of university-run training schools where teachers are university employees responsible for the theory and practice of training.

Rather than axe the GTCE, all teachers should be consulted on whether they want a professional council. Linked to this should be a chief education adviser drawn from the profession at the heart of government, an idea that Pauline Perry and Stephen Dorrell proposed in their review of public services for the Conservatives.

Despite the success of reforms such as PPA in primary schools, damaging evidence on school workforce reform is the "elephant in the room". It is obvious that aspects of the School Workforce Agreement must be reviewed. Support staff play an important role but their responsibilities have been confused with those of teachers. Clarification, not marginalisation, is vital.

All these ideas are up for debate. Recently, the Institute of Education hosted a public meeting about the future of the teaching profession. It should be the first of many. Schools and young people cannot be successful if teachers' views, self-confidence and learning are not at the heart of education - even in these straightened financial times.

John Bangs, Head of education at teaching union the NUT and visiting professor at the University of London's Institute of Education.

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