At a conference for teachers in Manchester last year, I said that I was proud to work in England’s excellent comprehensive education system, and that I was optimistic about its future. I still am. I also said that for us to move from the top tier of the education system to the first-place podium, we have to become the best place in the world to be a teacher. I think we’re on the right track.
Despite what we’re sometimes led to believe, we are a top-tier education system. That’s where the international league tables place us. Our teachers are amongst the most qualified in the world and have strong reading, maths and science scores across the range of studies. Of course, Talis, Pirls, Pisa and the like also show we have more to do – we’re not on the podium popping the champagne just yet – but our standing is huge cause for optimism. And we need that optimism: nobody ever gets to the podium without it.
Over the past year, I’ve been eyeing up the competition. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to many of those working to improve education in other countries. I’ve conducted my own research, debated, watched others debate and listened to the evidence and ideas that are shaping education systems around the world. I even got to meet Andria Zafirakou, a teacher from London, win the Global Teacher Prize at the Varkey Foundation’s Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.
I’ve also been fortunate to listen to, visit and read the work of teachers, academics and school leaders here in England. I took a trip to see Hannah Wilson and her team at Aureus School in Didcot, read papers like Peps Mccrea’s Learning - What is it, and how might we catalyse it?, had sneaky previews of books like The Teacher Gap from Professor Becky Allen and Dr Sam Sims and attended events such as the Ambition School Leadership’s Executive Educators Conference.
Talking our way to the top
The more I’m able to compare what’s going on around the world with what’s going on in England, the more clear our strength becomes. This strength is so important that I’m convinced that although we’re not at the top now, we’ve got the best chance of getting there. Nothing made me more sure than spending a Saturday in March with 300 teachers at a ResearchEd conference in Blackpool.
What solidified my convictions? Simple: England is having the best conversation about education in the world. This is the bit that the international league tables are missing.
Too often, the international conversation lacks evidence and rigour, is led by corporate interests and focuses on generic 21st-century skills, blockchain and futurology. In England, the conversation instead centres on discussions about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the rigorous academic literature about cognitive science.
The international conversation revolves around creating primary schools out of Stanford’s “design thinking principles” and treating literacy and numeracy as easy quick wins. In England, schools are using synthetic phonics to make sure every pupil learns how to read so that they can fall in love with books. The international conversation is led by a narrow clique of wonks and bureaucrats. In England, more and more teachers and school leaders have been unleashed and are constantly reading, writing, publishing and presenting to each other.
This conversation, and who is having it, matters. It matters because a simple ambition to make our education systems better isn’t good enough. Questions of what better is and how we achieve it are complex and contested, and it is teachers and school leaders who are best able to debate the options and choose the right path through.
Three particularly exciting examples spring to mind: Craig Barton, a maths teacher from Bolton; Carly Mitchell, principal at Oasis Academy South Bank in London; and Stephen Tierney, a headteacher from Blackpool who leads the Headteachers’ Roundtable.
I attended a workshop led by Craig (who is also Tes’ maths adviser). It was mostly packed out with maths teachers (not as scary as it sounds), and he led the group through a wonderful explanation of how he models mathematical problems to his students and crucially, why he does it that way. He was busting myths about how things “should' be done left, right and centre. This intertwining of the evidence and its practical application – created by a teacher; presented to other teachers – was the single most credible piece of CPD I’ve ever seen.
At an open day for teachers and school leaders at Oasis Academy South Bank, I was impressed by how Carly and her team freely opened their doors to anyone who wanted to visit and see the design choices they were making. The only price was taking the time to give some in-depth feedback about what you saw and how you thought they could keep getting better. The thirst for new insights that could push the school on ever further was palpable. (I particularly loved their approach to enrichment time – go and visit.)
And Stephen, as leader of Headteachers’ Roundtable took on the gargantuan task of re-thinking big chunks of education policy at the national conference he led. Policymakers are showing up to get tips because the depth of understanding about the interconnected elements of the system that our school leaders now have. This is brave stuff – and it’s working.
Decisions like this – effectively devolving huge amounts of responsibility to the sector – came with some costs. We have to recognise that we didn’t get here so rapidly without having to break some things in the first place.
Fixing what we broke
If we’re going to be the best in the world, we have to tackle those weaknesses. We have to fix teacher recruitment and retention, the support services that wrap around schools (particularly SEND and mental-health support, which are provided by struggling local authorities), teacher workload and the middle tier are top of my list.
But in fixing our weaknesses, we mustn’t forget to double down on our strengths. We have to get more teachers and school leaders into this conversation – particularly those in more isolated parts of the country.
These conversations need to happen during the working week, not at weekends. They need to happen in staffrooms, not just on Twitter. We need more research to be made freely available, and easy for teachers to access and apply. And we need to keep up our assault on snake oil, whatever its form, being pushed into our classrooms by those who have themselves, not our pupils, at heart. Giving every child a tablet is not going to get us there.
When I reflect on the past year, I find that my confidence that our system is on the right track has only increased.
As I said then, “If this becomes a collective endeavour, if we can get this right, our teachers and school leaders will not only be more expert; they’ll be happier and want to stay in this great profession for longer. We’ll start to see teachers teaching in ways we’ve never seen before. We’ll start to hear conversations about teaching that we’ve never heard before. Training that moves the dial on teaching will become much more widespread. And as a result, we’re going to see happier, better prepared pupils ready to tackle whatever life throws at them.
“And just imagine, we’ll all have the whole of Shanghai, Singapore, Canada and Finland queuing out the door to get a glimpse of how we did it.”
Matt Hood is founder and director at the Institute for Teaching