Teach First survey reveals the dark side of schools

25th January 2013 at 00:00
Participants report 'bullying' and teachers being 'forced to cheat'

"Secret" performance management systems, 160-minute lessons, exam cheating, "crazy working hours" and bullying, overpaid school leaders - a new survey has lifted the lid on the problems facing teachers working in state schools.

But the grievances revealed this week are not just notable for their extremity. They also stand out because they cannot be portrayed as complaints from an "awkward squad" who are more concerned about their pensions than pupils.

These are the thoughts of Teach First participants, "exceptional graduates" from top universities who have given up the chance of lucrative private sector jobs to teach in schools serving the country's most disadvantaged communities.

One year into their placements, the results from a survey of 477 Teach First participants show that many of the high-flyers have serious concerns about how their schools are run. "Teachers forced to cheat on GCSE assessments" and "extreme bending of rules in writing controlled assessments and exams" were among the many complaints about tactics employed by schools to climb league tables.

The poll was organised by the independent Academies Commission, convened by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and the Pearson thinktank, as evidence for its recently published report on the academies programme.

The responses revealed that significant numbers of Teach First participants feel that the extra academy freedoms over curriculum, lesson times and teachers' pay are having a "negative impact" on school improvement (see panel, left).

Not everyone was unhappy and 37 per cent of the teachers, who were working in academies and non-academies, said "no" when asked "Do you feel that your school uses any practices about which you have personal reservations?"

But half the respondents replied with a yes. When asked to explain why, the behaviour of school leaders was a common theme, with reports of "intimidation", "bullying" of staff, "dictatorial leadership", a head who "rules through fear" and an "unethical" sickness policy among the answers. "Humiliating" sackings, "excessive pay of top management", unrealistic expectations and management threats to staff were also noted.

Responses were split roughly evenly between teachers working in academies and those working in other state schools. But the academy sector appears to have worse problems, with 54 per cent of teachers saying they had reservations about their academy's practice, compared with 45.5 per cent of teachers in other state schools.

The more extreme examples also came mainly from those teaching in academies. They included mock Ofsted inspections that resulted in staff with poor grades being fired and a "secret performance management system" that ranked teachers according to their punctuality and whether they completed registers. The responses were made anonymously and do not name the academies concerned.

One academy teacher told of 160-minute lessons that improved corridor behaviour but made it hard to engage pupils. Another complained that their academy had a culture that improved pupils' grades but did not prepare them "very well" for life after school.

Overall, across all academies and state schools, 27 per cent of teachers' 222 written explanations of their reservations about school practice related to the pressure to improve results. Among them, nine teachers reported malpractice in exams or controlled assessment that ranged from outright "cheating" to "bending the rules" and a "lack of integrity".

James Westhead, director of external relations at Teach First, said that the programme's recruits faced the same challenges as all teachers. "Inevitably they will hold opinions about different practices and how they are implemented in their schools," he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said she was very concerned about "the gravity of what has been alleged". "These practices are undesirable and shouldn't be happening in schools," she added.

But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It would be unwise to draw sweeping conclusions from findings from a group of people who have been in school for a very short period of time."

No love for freedom

The Teach First survey suggests that most of the "brightest graduates" that ministers wanted to attract into teaching do not view academy freedoms positively.

A total of 88 teachers said their academy had changed term dates or the length of the school day, but only 27 of them said the impact had been positive, with 26 saying it had made things worse and 11 saying it had no impact (although not all participants expressed an opinion).

Of the 64 teachers working in academies that had departed from the national curriculum, 31 said it had had a positive effect, with 12 saying the impact was negative and four saying it made no difference.

Varying pay and conditions were seen as positive by just 14 of the 65 Teach First participants working in academies where variation was happening, compared with 22 who saw variation as negative and five who said it had no impact.

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