Talent over trends

4th April 2014 at 01:00

Back in the 1970s, when primary school teaching in England had undergone a complete transformation after the publication of the Plowden report, a friend of mine had been a member of a party visiting Oxfordshire, the heart of all things fashionable in the new-age primary classroom. Informality ruled, and at one school the visitors marvelled at the sheer variety of child-led activity taking place simultaneously in the classrooms.

Then the group was hurried past another room, much quieter than the rest. "Mrs Elder is in there," the school leader explained. "I'm afraid she's very old-school and rather formal, and she refuses to accept the new thinking. I don't think we need bother going in there."

In fact, I suspect that Mrs Elder was probably a very accomplished teacher who preferred to teach in the style she knew best and was most comfortable with.

I was reminded of this incident when I read a recent article in TES, written anonymously by a young teacher concerned about the treatment of an older colleague. The older teacher had given excellent service but her methods were now considered by the management team to be out of step, and she was being subjected to constant observation and frequent monitoring sessions.

Although she was bravely struggling on, I shudder to think of the effect on her morale. What's more, I suspect this is no isolated case. With the relentless pressure to make young children reach often inappropriate academic levels, older, experienced and highly capable teachers who have serious concerns about the direction education is taking are being sidelined in favour of young, inexpensive and more malleable newcomers to the profession.

At the moment, there is an unhealthy emphasis on the constant monitoring of classroom teachers, combined with intense pressure for them to conform to what is supposedly "good classroom practice", as approved by school inspectors.

During my second inspection, the lead inspector was very unhappy that I didn't undertake regular formal monitoring of my teachers. I explained that I didn't need to: I visited all the classrooms every day, and I knew the teachers and students intimately.

The inspector did not feel that this was at all satisfactory, so for the next half-term I bit the bullet and spent every Tuesday monitoring my staff. They weren't fazed by this because they were highly capable practitioners, and I joined in with some amazing lessons. But I learned nothing about the teachers that I didn't already know from my regular pop-ins.

After that half-term I went back to spending Tuesdays teaching small groups, running the school choir, organising events and undertaking all the other things expected of a hands-on headteacher. School leaders should be celebrating the diversity of teaching techniques they have in their schools, not hounding teachers to conform to one highly questionable model.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email: mikejkent@aol.com

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