‘It is immoral to expect people to work 70 hours a week with no time off’

8th June 2018 at 00:00
As the man responsible for representing teacher trainers, James Noble-Rogers has long called for better conditions in the profession, and he believes the government must do ‘something big’ to reduce heavy workloads. He tells Helen Ward how, after a slow start, education made a big difference in his life – but also left him with atrocious handwriting

It was teacher trainers who spotted early warning signs of the recruitment crisis now engulfing the profession.

They saw the number of applications beginning to drop off, heard the hesitations of graduates facing ever-more debt and watched the enthusiasm of trainees starting to wane as their workload mounted.

James Noble-Rogers, executive director of the Universities’ Council for the Education of Teachers (Ucet), represents those trainers.

He has spent years suggesting, persuading and demanding that bold action should be taken on recruitment. For much of that time, it seemed that the government was more concerned with overhauling the system – and depicting universities as “enemies of promise” – than listening to teacher trainers.

But now, at last, it appears that his message is getting across.

 

“We have come through the choppy times,” says Noble-Rogers diplomatically. “We’re now in the position where we can see things we’ve been saying for a long time – in a persuasive, not hostile way – coming to be reflected in what the government’s doing.”

The results include extending and improving the training for teachers at the start of their careers. And Noble-Rogers’ own experiences in education have convinced him of the importance of such measures – in particular, enabling greater access to learning for adults, as well as campaigning for master’s-level professional development for teachers.

Writing on the wall

The 57-year-old’s own school career was not especially academic.

Recalling his time at Wood End primary school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, in the days before the national curriculum, his standout memory is of a headteacher who was particularly keen on children learning how to write in italics using paintbrushes and ink pens. “The kids spent most of their time flicking ink at each other,” he recalls. “My handwriting is atrocious to this day.”

He went on to Manland secondary (now Sir John Lawes School) in Harpenden, and by the age of 16 had gained just one O level, but stayed on until 18, eventually leaving with a total of five O levels and an A level in history.

His father, Peter, worked as an engineer and later as a project manager commissioning oil rigs. His mother, Joyce, was a district nurse. They had differing views on education – his father thought it was a waste of time but his mother encouraged him to stick at it, even giving him money for attaining good grades.

Noble-Rogers’ first job, aged 18, was in a betting shop in St Albans. “I wrote results on the board,” he explains. “But I was not popular because my writing was so bad: no one knew who had won.”

So he persevered with his education, taking A-level sociology in evening classes and then applying to Hatfield Polytechnic.

“The tutor said he would take a risk with me, provided I got the A level in sociology,” says Noble-Rogers. He got the A level and years later was delighted to be awarded an honorary degree from what is now the University of Hertfordshire. “Everything I’ve done [since] has been based pretty much on them taking a chance and offering me a place,” he says.

Like many young people, Noble-Rogers began his degree with no idea of what it would lead to – easier in the days when tuition was free. Today, students are in a very different situation and he thinks tuition fees are a major deterrent for would-be teachers.

“Now, people going into postgraduate training will have accumulated three or four years of debt, and parents or peers are saying, ‘Why do you want to incur another year of fee debt and maintenance debt?’,” says Noble-Rogers.

And then there is the increasing workload. “It is immoral to expect people to work 70 hours a week with no time off,” he argues. “Colleagues in teacher education try to address it. They can say to trainees: ‘You don’t need to do all this.’ But if the headteacher says they have to do it, they have to do it. It can’t be addressed through the way teachers are trained. That will help, but it has to be addressed through the way schools are managed.”

The government has begun to focus on the need to tackle the workload burden, setting up working groups, commissioning research and issuing guidance. But Noble-Rogers thinks the Department for Education needs to get tougher. “I would like to see Ofsted take a stronger role on [workload],” he says. “It could ask teachers how many hours they’re working, and this could be reflected in the outcomes or referred to in the report.

“[Workload] does hit teacher-training providers because they feel a duty of care. It needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. Something big has to happen.”

Imagine interviewing an enthusiastic would-be teacher – someone who is getting a crack at their dream career and being given a chance to work following years of study. These are hopes that should be nurtured, not doused, he believes.

Noble-Rogers hit his stride at Hatfield Polytechnic, leaving with a BA in humanities and going on to do a master’s in philosophy at the University of Nottingham. Back in Harpenden, he applied for the civil service and ended up at the Department for Education and Science (as the DfE was then known). His jobs included allocating teacher-training places, and after nine years he left for the newly formed Teacher Training Agency (TTA).

“[The TTA] was set up to reform the way teacher training was funded and the way it was delivered,” he says. The reforms included the introduction of school-centred initial teacher training to provide universities with competition, and the use of Ofsted ratings to determine how many places providers were allocated, rather than relying on the historical number of places.

“It was a revolutionary period in teacher training and it produced some good results,” recalls Noble-Rogers.

Then, just before he turned 40, he left the civil service to become head of governance at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. There, he was given the chance to do postgraduate training in voluntary-sector management, something he describes as a “crucial turning point”. The course gave him the skills and confidence he needed to forge ahead, and helped him to win his post at Ucet.

“I wouldn’t have got this job if I had not done that,” he admits. “It gave me confidence that I could still operate at that academic level, and also knowledge about the way the voluntary sector was governed and held to account.”

He says that experience also convinced him of the need for more master’s-level qualifications for teachers. “I know the benefits of doing master’s-level programmes for working professionals [and] the impact it can have on performance and confidence,” he says.

At the time, he was still plain James Rogers. It was in his new job that he met and married Bea Reed (née Noble), who worked as initial teacher training lead for the National Strategies programme for improving learning and teaching in schools; the couple decided they would both change their surnames.

He remembers attending a meeting soon after his marriage. “I introduced myself as James Rogers-Nobble,” he laughs.

It was an uncharacteristic stumble – he is a careful speaker, something that is essential since part of his role involves being quizzed by MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee. “Select committee inquiries are scary,” he says. “I go in thinking I will not say anything unless I have something to say. But then I end up thinking, I do know about this, I want to say something now.”

‘No cosy relationship’

The government has missed its teacher-training targets for the past five years and teacher-training providers are the ones being leaned on to recruit more trainees, while also facing punitive measures if standards or dropout rates slip. Noble-Rogers has spent years persevering with his message that high-quality teacher training can help to attract and retain staff – but says, for maximum effect, the government needs to listen and work with these gatekeepers on what is deterring trainees.

“We have always sought to constructively engage with the government,” Noble-Rogers adds. “Now there are welcome signs that they are constructively engaging with us.

“It’s not always going to be an entirely cosy relationship, and it shouldn’t be a cosy relationship. But my job is for the benefit not only of my members but also for children in schools, to make sure they have the best-trained teachers they can possibly have. And I think that is genuinely what Ucet does.”

@teshelen

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