Plagued by an army of 'fleas' that won't get off our backs, is it any wonder teachers descend into mediocrity?

26th November 2010 at 00:00

A Government minister recently asked me what teachers are doing working more than a 50-hour week when their average time in the classroom is less than half that total. It was, I reflected, a good question. No-one would argue that, apart from teaching, the two key professional responsibilities of teachers are planning and assessment.

But much of what teachers do, as they toil on Sunday afternoons filling out immensely complex and detailed lesson planning formats, or labouring into the dusk at the end of a school day filling in data sets, is wasted work. Its purpose is not to aid professional thought and reflection, it is to cover teachers' backs so that they have the evidence that they are not making it up as they go along.

There can be no profession which is more watched over, more regulated and more directed than teaching. There is a saying - big fleas have little fleas upon their back to bite them. The teaching profession is flea ridden - bitten by armies of "others", who watch over teachers and attempt to direct their every move. This approach results in "drop-in" lesson observation forms requiring teachers to "meet and greet" students at the door; state that learning objectives must be made clear within the first three minutes of the lesson; dictate that all lessons must have a starter, a middle section and a plenary; insist that lesson plans must show evidence of differentiation; regulate that pupils must spend part of the lesson engaged in "interactive learning". And all teachers must do hand-stands at the start of the lesson and cartwheels at the end of it to model a healthy approach to physical fitness and wellbeing. (OK, I made that last one up - but I wouldn't mind laying a bet on it that some school, somewhere, has something close to that.)

It is a marker of the diminished confidence of teachers that they have put up with this nonsense when they should have revolted and asked some bleedingly obvious questions like - why should I routinely tell pupils exactly what is going to happen in every lesson? What about an element of surprise? Why can't I play on the powerful impetus of suspense (what's going to happen next)? Why must my pupils be bored rigid by the repetition of the same lesson structure?

No wonder some teachers who begin their career as dedicated professionals lose the will to live. They go through the motion, but as they lack passion and inspiration they cannot communicate these qualities to their pupils. Their lessons are competent, but not much else. In his leader article on November 12, TES editor Gerard Kelly argued that education had a "mediocrity problem" and advised school leaders to "get rid" of these teachers.

I am not going to defend incompetent or lazy teachers. Apart from the damage that they do to their pupils' education, teachers who simply "don't care" leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and unrest as pupils react badly to poorly taught lessons. They make the rest of their colleagues - those who have to pick up the pieces - resentful and exhausted. These teachers need to leave the profession - and they usually do because they find their working lives to be so humiliating.

But there are very few teachers who don't care. Most do, passionately, even if they do not always show it. The best of us have mediocre days, just as some TES editorials are better than others. If we want to make teachers who are often mediocre good, and good teachers outstanding, we need to create the conditions where their professional competence can improve and flourish, not an arid waste land of compliance where creativity and innovation are written out of the script.

We need, then, to remake schools as learning communities, for staff as well as for pupils. This transformation will require two things: school leaders who are capable of leading teaching and learning, and the provision, school by school, of effective continuing professional development.

Let's take our school leaders first. A recent OECD study concluded that school leaders have focused more on the management of their schools and less on the management of the learning going on in them. And Ofsted has judged that school leaders are least good at leading improvements in the quality of teaching and learning. This must change. The key focus for a school leader should be on the quality of teaching and learning in their school, and that quality must not be judged by one-size-fits-all, bureaucratic proformas which sap teachers' energy and innovation. School leaders also need to lead by example and have a regular teaching timetable.

Secondly, CPD in schools needs to be transformed. Secondary school teachers want more, and better, subject-based CPD. Primary teachers need much more than literacy and numeracy. Planning and resourcing CPD needs to be a key focus for school leadership, and its effect needs to be assessed much more precisely.

Teachers can learn a great deal from one another, but they need the time and space to do so - "in school" CPD cannot be done on the cheap. Too often CPD gets cut when the school's budget is reduced. This is a great mistake: the tougher things get, the more school leaders need to invest in, and rely upon, their staff.

Getting rid of teachers may be quick, but it is no answer to the endemic problems in our education system. We need a culture of learning in our staffrooms, we need peer observation and time for reflection. We need school leaders to invest in learning - and we need an end to inspection-driven form filling.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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