'We need powerful subject associations to allow us to see beyond the latest political diktats'

Subject associations occupy a unique position in the educational landscape, writes one Head of English

Yvonne Williams

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In these data-driven times, it is all too easy to neglect the core of our teaching. When history teacher Tom Rogers asked in his most recent article: "When did you last sit down, for an hour, in work, to think about how or what you teach?" he knew all too well that this reflection is perceived as a luxury rather than a necessity. Other recent articles in Tes have provided a pretty bleak and soulless picture of modern teaching.

The former head of a high-profile public school thinks robots could do the job of a teacher within a decade. Perhaps Sir Anthony Seldon, who is currently the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, is right. The mechanised, merchandised vision of teaching encouraged by education publishers is so reductive – so atomised into structures like scripted lessons, prescribed sequences of lesson slides and textbooks closely aligned to exam courses – that a robot could "deliver" it.

Education is big business. Every specification change brings a metaphorical gold rush for publishers. Teachers, made insecure by habits of dependence on exam-board-endorsed literature, can’t press the purchase button quickly enough.  Free digital resources are the sweetener to encourage instant sign-up.  And the rushing-through of new specifications only increases the clamour for certainty and resources. It is not hard to see where habits of dependence come from and, with them, the gradual erosion of independent intellectual thought.  

As Tes reported some months ago, even marking can be done for us online, courtesy of a company that rejoices in the name "No More Marking". No wonder the Pisa boss Andreas Schleider asserts that teaching in England is not interesting enough. And that cannot be blamed solely on the excessive hours worked by the profession.  

Sadly, this is a situation that is not going to change until we resource the teacher rather than the task. The latest research by RAND Education reaches what should be an entirely unsurprising conclusion: the crucial difference to pupils’ progress lies in the quality of the teacher. 

It reveals: "When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership."

Subject focus is too often neglected for teachers. Exam boards provide very good training to pass their exams. Various consultancies provide good training on cross-curricular themes and pedagogy. But teachers need the specifics of their discipline to teach effectively, let alone well. This is where the role of the subject association comes in. Subject associations have a unique place in the educational landscape. The subject discipline is at the heart of teaching, whether it's the "what" or the "how".  

Subject associations are independent of government and believe very strongly in supporting teachers in their specialism. They give teachers access to the important debates that deepen subject expertise. Associations maintain links with university teacher training, with developments within subjects and with international practitioners and researchers. Subject advice is much cheaper and probably less biased than exam boards’ services.

In my own subject, the education journals for both the English Association and National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate) contain the latest research into everything affecting the subject, from assessing reading through phonics and creativity in the classroom, to in-depth critiques of texts. These journals and other publications have grown into more sophisticated anthologies over time. They differ from thinktank reports because they are not attempting to push one point of view. Instead, they arise out of genuine academic curiosity and provide a training ground for teachers wanting to publish research.  

In these contentious times, subject associations are the right bodies to evaluate the standards and practices in the new specifications. This is especially true in a discipline such as English or history – which both have a breadth of questions – where suspicion of inaccurate marking is strongest. Even the state regulator Ofqual is not as independent; nor does it bring together, at as low a cost as subject associations, as many experts and experiences in teaching, learning and examining. 

Finally, the most important aspect of the associations’ work is the conferences they provide. The last weekend of June sees Nate at its most varied and fascinating: international speakers and guests enrich our understanding of how and what we teach by comparing it with their own contexts. On a smaller scale in November each year, the Nate post-16 committee runs a conference on issues relevant to sixth-form study that is linked to universities and features a number of different exam boards.  

Tapping into a network of like-minded professionals provides a view beyond the diktat of modern politicians and inspection regimes and into what really matters.

Yvonne Williams is the head of English and a member of the post-16 and higher education committee of Nate. The association is running a Post-16 and Higher Education Day Conference: New Directions at Post-16 English at Aston University on Saturday 11 November 2017

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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