Teachers must answer the call to collaborate

8th December 2017 at 00:00
Acknowledging a plurality of approaches would make us unstoppable, argue Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut, the authors of a new manifesto

Teachers must learn to tackle pupil distress.

Teachers must lock their own politics away.

Teachers must be kept on their toes.

Teachers must be allowed to get on with their work.

Teachers must be better trained.

Teachers must be rewarded.

All these are extracts from headlines that have appeared in Tes in the past three months.

Everybody, it seems, has an agenda to push onto education, schools and teachers.

And so we get to the bit where we tell you we’ve written a book telling teachers what they must do.

Another one.

Except: we haven’t.

Of teachers

What we have done is edited Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, a book written by 42 people – from classroom teachers to researchers and policymakers – exploring what an alternative vision for the future of the profession in the UK might look like.

It’s an amazing, pluralist, powerful vision that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Some people you’ve probably heard of have written chapters – and people you haven’t. It’s got the rather self-important word “manifesto” in its title, but it’s not a political book or a book of politics – or a polemic. Rather, it’s an honest look at the system failures that have caused some of our most entrenched problems in UK teaching, and some expertly thought-out ideas on how to solve them – at systems level. Because telling teachers what they should do – more, again, repeatedly – is not helping.

Why us?

Why now?

What do we have that the teaching unions, the Chartered College, researchED, teaching schools alliances, and anyone else who’s ever tried to wrestle back teachers’ professional pride and autonomy don’t have?

Nothing, and everything.

Nothing: because we’ve both been to rock bottom as teachers. We’ve both had appalling observations, been bullied to tears by senior staff, neglected our families, been signed off work with anxiety and stress, and nearly lost ourselves in the gloom of punitive accountability. Writing and editing this book, we had nothing to lose: no heads threatening to sack us, no exam classes depending on us with the mortal urgency of organ recipients, no colleagues emailing desperately for data updates. All we had left was our professional pride, and it was remarkably powerful.

Everything: because what we’re suggesting includes all those organisations and lots more. It includes everyone. Lucy’s introduction to the book draws on intersectional theories of identity to call for a more inclusive vision of the teaching community, not only because it is ethical, but also because it is powerful.

The UK community of teachers, educators, researchers and education workers is enormous – but fractured. The system as it stands works to keep us competing, bickering and comparing. If we stop doing that – if we acknowledge a plurality of approaches and draw on all available evidence and invite other professionals in and collaborate with each other – we could be utterly unstoppable. That’s the message of Flip the System UK.

We started this project two years ago, when teaching in a school in special measures had left us both burned out and unsure of our futures in education. In an attempt to bolster our bruised professional pride, we attended a researchED conference together. It was an attempt to take ownership of our professional development, to reclaim it after years of degrading nonsense framed as CPD: drawing learning bicycles and pseudoscience about pupil’s brains needing water and passing balloons between our knees.

Our jaws dropped as Rene Kneyber, a maths teacher from Holland, perfectly framed – in a cool, academic narrative – the problems we thought that only we had been facing and had internalised as our own fault.

He didn’t just describe it, he explained the causes of it: the deprofessionalisation of teaching, the punitive accountability, the policy vacuum filled by initiative after initiative. He told us of the book he and fellow teacher Jelmer Evers had written in the Netherlands – The Alternative – and how it had spawned an international version called Flip the System. This had begun to affect education policy in their homeland and they hoped it would help others, too. Beyond pointing out the problems and their causes, he offered simple but radical solutions.

By the end of Rene’s session, we were of one mind: a UK edition needed to be written. We went to tell him as much. Modelling the professional trust and belief in teacher agency he had minutes before been propounding, his response took us by surprise.

“Why don’t you do it?”

For teachers

We are both parents. When children are young, they tend to cling to you like little monkeys. It can be adorable, but also somewhat hindering.

Take, for example, going swimming. A lack of confidence may force your little cherub to attach themselves to you for what they perceive as dear life. Going swimming alone as a parent, the sense of space and freedom as you kick unhindered through the water is dizzying, satisfying and empowering. This is what we have never known as teachers and what we desperately want and need: the freedom to explore and stretch our professional muscles without dragging anyone else under.

And yet, the very thought of doing so is often met with outrage. We are made to feel like neglectful parents. “Won’t somebody think of the children?”

This is tantamount to ideological blackmail from leaders and policymakers desperate to keep us swimming to keep them afloat, without any effort on their part. The real children in this scenario – our students – can only be better served by teachers with autonomy, agency and a favourable work-life balance.

And when we are not made to feel like neglectful parents, we are made to feel like ungrateful children instead. We are not a mature profession, we are told. Tes’s head of content Ed Dorrell has gone out on a limb to say that we are becoming one (bit.ly/MatureProf). And we are grateful to him for saying so. But who is Ed to make that judgement? Why do we care? Why the dependency on outside agents to tell us what we are, are becoming, or can be?

The recent history of education policy in the UK has been marked by a variety of seismic shifts, not least of which devolution, which has resulted in the UK running four separate education systems simultaneously. Shared across all of them, as our book points out, is a seemingly irresistible temptation among politicians to centralise decision-making.

Unions are typically ostracised. Consultation on policy is generally conducted with and through thinktanks, among which dominates a culture of managerialism. And then there are the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings, which hang above the lot like the sword of Damocles.

 

But at the bottom of the pyramid, teachers are undeniably a profession. They attend CPD at the weekends. They form networks around subjects, phases and ideas. They research and contribute to research. They read and write about education. They challenge each other. They reflect on their own practice and they work to improve it.

What is sorely missing from our systems are the institutions, channels and transparent structures to act as conduits for that professionalism – to carry teachers’ voices to the places where decisions are made.

And let’s be honest, what is also missing is a desire to hear those voices. That’s not political point-scoring against the current government. The statement applies to every government in the UK, now and back through most modern history.

But we aren’t here pushing for greater union representation alone, though it is certainly part of the mix. In his chapter for Flip the System UK, Howard Stevenson, director of research and professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Nottingham, makes a powerful case for unionisation, but also for union reform: “If unions are to become the mass participation organisations they need to be (rather than the mass membership organisations they are) they must work hard at creating the cultures that welcome engagement, value participation and offer invigorating spaces to develop collective agency” (Stevenson in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2017).

Alongside his chapter is an equally brilliant contribution by Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching. Building pathways for greater professional recognition for teachers is only part of hers and the college’s drive to increase our status. And you’ll recognise some quirky voices too: the inimitable Rae Snape, headteacher at the Spinney Primary School in Cambridge: “If we are going to encourage others to join our noble, elegant and rewarding profession, we must manifest schools as exciting, brilliant, joyful, beautiful and unpredictable places.”

The contributors to Flip the System UK go much further in their suggestions for systemic change that recognises teacher agency – yours and my agency – and in recognising opportunities to put teachers back at the heart of education. It is about an end to compliance. “For teachers (and schools) the culture of performativity adversely affects the quality of professional relationships and yields self-serving compliance (Ball, 2003; Hardy and Lewis, 2016; Jeffrey, 2002; Perryman, 2006)” (Gibbs, in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2017).

A full measure of devotion

Colleagues, we hear you balk. “More systemic change? Heaven help us!”

And we hear your pessimism too. “Politicians listening to us? As if!”

But what our book promises is not a revolution – it is an evolution.

It is not about wresting power from politicians, but making our power indispensable to them in making UK education the best it’s ever been. It is not about telling you – again – to transform your practice, but making the time and space for us to transform it ourselves. It isn’t about tests or no tests, these tests or those, or changing curriculum content, but about ensuring our voice is heard when these decisions are made.

And it can be done. It must be done. It will be done.

“The world is in turmoil, and our schools and school systems have to know how to respond” (Hargreaves in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2017).

The alternative is a continuation of the chorus of voices telling us what we must do and of our voicelessness in response to them. It is a continuation of the policy initiative maelstrom: a continuation of the crisis in retention – costing livelihoods and budgets – and of recruitment struggles. Even if a case could be made that we are sacrificing our personal and professional freedoms in order to give our pupils the best education we can, that would be a terrible choice to make. But let’s be clear – we are not. Our pupils are not benefitting from our burnout.

The last word here goes to Zeba Clarke, who sets the scene and the urgent impetus for change beautifully in her chapter in the book: “the critique of punitive accountability fostered by ranking schools has been ignored, and its proponents in educational research portrayed as ‘The Blob’, defined in The Spectator as ‘the amorphous coalition of a bloated education bureaucracy, teacher unions and education research establishment’ (Sewell, 2010). In the intervening seven years, there has been a hardening of opposing views within ‘The Blob’ itself, with culture wars between educators favouring traditional approaches and those leaning towards more progressive teaching styles. Divided, we are easily conquered” (Clarke in Rycroft-Smith and Dutaut, 2017).

Sometimes, we are only divided until we have something to stand behind. We whole heartedly hope this book – and this global movement, an umbrella against the swirling hailstorm teachers are so often faced with – can be that banner, calling everyone to the resistance. Read the book and see if the crystallisation of what we all keep thinking and saying and sighing about as “common sense” has created the diamond we hope it has – both in the sense of being beautiful and exceptionally hard (to argue with).

Flip The System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto is out now, published by Routledge and priced at £14.95

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a maths teacher now working as a writer and researcher, who makes regular contributions to Tes and The Guardian. JL Dutaut is a teacher of citizenship, media and government and politics, writer and researcher , who makes regular contributions to Tes

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