Last week, we celebrated World Teachers’ Day – a time when countries around the world are asked to celebrate their teachers and to value the work they do. In England, celebrations may be a little muted because, although teaching is a profession that comes high in the league tables in the public's perception of valuable work, teachers themselves too often feel undervalued and overworked.
Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), captured the mood of the moment recently when he argued that it was important to make teaching in England "intellectually attractive" again. For this to happen, he argued, teachers should spend less time working directly with pupils in the classroom; not, he stressed, to complete more admin tasks, but to use the time to work with colleagues, observe other teachers’ teaching, prepare lessons and work with parents.
“Huh,” I can hear you say (or imagine you thinking). “Tell that to my headteacher, struggling as s/he is to staff the timetable as school budgets shrink and the pupil population rises.”
But it is clear that we have to start thinking strategically about how to make teaching a rewarding profession again – one that attracts good graduates and gives them interesting work, with proper pay levels that will keep them in the classroom and in schools.
So, here are the top six points on my wishlist to make teachers’ working lives better.
1. More focused, and better, early career support
New teachers constantly tell me that they feel thrown in at the deep end, that they are expected to hit the ground running and are insufficiently supported when they hit the inevitable difficulties that they all face at some point. The problem is that, because so many experienced teachers are leaving the profession, newly qualified teachers, sometimes with only one or two years’ experience, are told they must take on responsibilities for which they neither have the experience nor the training. We need to take much better care of teachers early in the profession. They need a lighter timetable, careful mentoring and targeted professional development.
2. Distributed leadership
School leaders need to create the systems and structures to share leadership with the education professionals they work with. This is important, not only in helping to alleviate some of the burdens that school leaders face, but in creating the conditions for teachers to contribute to school improvement policies, and to be consulted about decisions which affect them. As Andreas Schleicher argues, teachers have “essential professional knowledge and expertise which needs to be valued and harvested by leaders”.
3. Continuing professional development
Teachers need, but are not getting, professional development targeted at their professional development needs. For too many, an unfocused, generic two hours of "training" on a Thursday afternoon after school counts as neither professional nor development. If teachers are going to be, as Schleicher argues, ‘high-level knowledge workers’, they must be invested in and developed so they can keep up-to-date with new developments in their subjects, and/or age phases.
4. Better policy-making at national level
Politicians do education reform badly. In the past few years, a bad situation has been made worse through rushed, botched and badly implemented education reform. Politicians must learn to build consensus about the aims of education reform and to engage stakeholders, especially teachers, in formulating and implementing policy. All political players and stakeholders need to develop realistic expectations about the pace and nature of reforms to improve outcomes. And reforms need to be backed by sustainable financing and realistic timelines for implementation. Teachers need, moreover, reassurance that they will be given the tools to develop and the recognition of their professional motivation to improve their students’ outcomes.
5. Reform the accountability system
England’s school accountability system is in a complete mess. Schools are currently made to be responsible for the poverty of their pupils, as those with disadvantaged intakes, even when they score well on added-value measures, struggle to escape the shackles of negative Ofsted judgements. And, as regional school commissioners turn their attention from mass academisation to school improvement, the turf wars between them and Ofsted causes confusion and chaos as school leaders struggle to meet the requirements of both the inspectors and the commissioners.
We have come to the end of the "stick" approach to school improvement. The whole litany of school categories – "coasting"; "beneath the floor standard", "requires improvement, "in special measures" – has become more and more meaningless and has had exactly the opposite of its intended consequence. Far from driving school improvement, it has made the recruitment and retention of teachers and school leaders in schools with disadvantaged pupil intakes a high-stakes professional roulette, with school leaders’ jobs ending on inspection whims. This has to stop.
And finally, teachers and school leaders need to be paid properly for the essential work that they do. This is so obvious, it needs no further elaboration.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedNEU
You can watch Tes' #WorldTeachersDay debate live on Facebook here. Make your voice heard and comment with your questions below the live stream.