In September last year, my brother got a job teaching English at a state secondary school in France (he has lived there since 2006). Since then, I have learnt much about the teacher’s place in the French education system. From everything he has relayed to me, the most striking difference lies in the one area that is driving teachers out of the British education system at an alarming rate; professional autonomy.
For a start, he is never observed. Yes, he and his colleagues discuss teaching and learning in the staffrooms and hallways of his highly respected secondary school and share experiences and ideas regularly, but no one turns up with a clipboard to make judgements on him. I thought that I was the one speaking French when I mentioned “learning walks”. “What are they?” he asked. As in all French state schools, there is no middle leadership arm. Heads of department and senior leaders simply don’t exist. Pay rises are mandatory based on experience. Staff do support each other, but there is no line manager – apart from the headteacher, who generally lets teachers get on with it.
An independent profession
My brother says that teachers are more like doctors and solicitors out there. If a teacher doesn’t have a class to teach, they aren’t expected to be at school. If they have a free in the afternoon, they go or stay, it’s up to them. The independence that frightens British policymakers exists in France and in many other European countries.
“Have you ever been asked about the progress of individual students in your classes?” I ask. “No, never,” he responds and then laughs, as though what I am asking is unthinkable. Performance-related pay does not exist. Reporting of students happens three times a year and consists of “around 15 lines of text and a mark out of 20” for each student. Following each report to parents, the teachers of those classes meet together after school and share their opinions so that everyone is in the loop. And that’s it. There are no residuals, LOPs or KPIs. “Do students have targets?” I ask. “No,” he says. There is an inspectorate, but he says it’s nothing like Ofsted. It comes to schools “every five years or so” and there are no stringent or formalised league tables ranking schools.
“What about work scrutiny?” I ask. “What’s that?” he responds. “Where someone takes exercise books and checks them.” “Doesn’t happen,” he says. Again, he laughs wryly. He can also assess student learning in any way he sees fit. There are very loose parameters when it comes to marking. To mimic one of my favourite football chants: “He marks when he wants, he marks when he waaaants, he is my brother, he marks when he wants.”
Pisa results and teacher retention in France
Of course, I would be very concerned about all this if there was any evidence that the French system was broken compared to our own, but that is far from the case.
When looking at the 2012 Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) test rankings of both countries, we find that students in France rank ahead of their British peers in reading and maths. In a more recent OECD report, France was ranked 23rd in Europe with the UK ranked 20th. The two countries are similarly placed in terms of student outcomes, despite the marked difference of the education policy in each country.
A difference between France and Britain can also be seen in teacher retention rates. In 2014, the OECD found that the average experience level of a British teacher is 12 years, whereas in France that figure is 17. So, French teachers on average are five years more experienced than their British counterparts. In fact, UK teachers rank second bottom only to Singapore in terms of their longevity in the classroom. This gap will surely widen, exemplified again by recently released figures from the National Audit Office showing the haemorrhaging of teachers is continuing unabated. At this rate, that experience gap could be 10 or 20 years before too long.
A world of education
It’s not just in France where the experience of teachers seems to differ from the UK. The biggest educational success story in Europe is Finland. Despite being ranked 35 places below the UK in terms of its GDP, it achieved a 12th place global ranking in the 2012 Pisa tests and also ranks 5th in the Pearson index of the top 50 performing countries in education. Finland sees things in a similar way to France when it comes to teacher status. They are valued and trusted by all, including policymakers. This is reflected in the time and resources allocated to teacher training and development. Despite Finland being in the midst of a deep economic crisis, they recently ringfenced their prestigious 5-year Master’s level teacher-training qualification. There is no fast-track, quick-buck route into teaching.
Teaching in Finland is considered an art form to be philosophised over, considered and practised over a career. And just in case you think Finland is an exception to the rule, German teachers usually complete a five-year degree and a two-year teacher training course before becoming a teacher. The intensive drive towards an accountability utopia has yielded unprecedented bureaucratic pressure on British teachers with workload being the number-one ranked reason for teachers leaving the profession. UK teachers spend double the amount of time marking each week, double the amount of time planning lessons each week, nearly four times the amount of time administrating and double the amount of time completing other tasks than their Finnish counterparts.
The numbers don't lie
The British government can’t say that their approach is yielding better results. The evidence base clearly shows they are pushing an agenda that is as irrational as it is pointless.
The talent pool of teachers in the UK is incredible. The potential is there. The international picture surely shows that we need to harness and nurture that talent, not wreck, undermine and destroy it. We could and should be topping those tables. Start trusting teachers to do their jobs, and we could get there.
5th in world
40th in world
PISA Ranking (2012)
Time marking per week
Planning per week
Admin time per week
Other tasks per week
Teaching contact time
Data from: TALIS teacher survey (OECD 2014) and PISA tests (2012)