Whispers from Westminster
Scene 15 – INT: A CLASSROOM. The door crashes open. Mr Smith swaggers in, hands twitching by his sides. He glances left, then right. His eyes narrow to slits. “GCSE English today,” he hisses. “So you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punks?”
The inspector at the back of the room ticks “outstanding” on her sheet (then remembers that she isn’t meant to grade lessons any more and hastily scribbles it out). The music swells to a crescendo and the screen fades to black.
According to Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw, what our “ordinary” education system needs is more “mavericks”. More “awkward squad”. Less boring, paint-by-numbers “You may have covered the syllabus, Ms Jones, but where’s your flair?” And, as luck might have it, those are the qualities that the chief inspector has in spades.
The trouble is, he’s wrong. Because for every Mr Keating telling his classes: “We are members of the human race…poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for”, there’s a hundred or more poor saps trying desperately to be engaging. They’re staying up until 1am every night making creative starters and beating themselves up because no one has yet stood on their chairs and called out “Oh captain, my captain” and, until someone does, they must have failed as a teacher.
The problem with English education isn’t lack of mavericks. For too many schools, it’s an excess of them – if by maverick, you mean variation in the ability to consistently deliver similar levels of attainment and progress to colleagues who are teaching the same cohort of kids.
In-school variance is the hidden killer that lurks beneath the surface of all discussions about education policy or school improvement. The consistent finding from Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is that England has one of the highest levels of variance within schools across the world. This is far more problematic than variance between schools. A (10-year old) Department for Education study showed that key stage 2 in-school variation was five times greater than between-school variance; for KS3 it was 11 times greater; and for KS4 it was 14 times greater.
The solution to this isn’t mavericks but that other educational trope, so often deployed pejoratively: factory schooling. The honest truth is that if our school system were better at consistently delivering the same level of outputs for the same level of inputs, year on year, location by location, then we’d be in a much better position than we are now. One of the things that distinguishes high-performing multi-academy trusts is their insistence on, and ability to deliver, consistent practice within and across their schools.
Don’t get me wrong. Passion, flair, engagement, enthusiasm for a subject – these are things to cherish and nurture in teachers. But more often, I worry about people burning out by pretending they’re Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, when really they’d benefit from their head of department advising them to calm down, get some sleep and focus on consistent practice.
So, bugger the mavericks. Let’s have some more praise for factory schooling, please.
Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron