Why teachers must have the freedom to teach their way

It is incontrovertible that if you trust teachers and schools to behave creatively, the results will follow. So why does it feel like whistling in the wind?

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It’s nice when you find people agree with you. Right now, of course, consensus is a rare beast, on political issues at any rate. But this piece has been written before the election outcome was known, and must therefore ignore the elephant in the room.

I’m referring to my oft-stated view that the major problem besetting schools and teachers – and therefore the education of the young – lies in society’s (or government’s) refusal to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust they deserve and need.

My criticisms of Ofsted (mainly of the perverse priorities and intense pressure that inspection generates) infuriate those in the inspectorate who notice, while comments on Twitter and the Tes webpages suggest that they strike a chord, if a quiet one, across the profession.

Culture of mistrust

But now a big beast has joined the throng. None other than Pisa boss Andreas Schleicher was headlined last week as declaring that “Mistrust of teachers holds England back”.

To be honest, Schleicher didn’t say: “That Bernard Trafford’s had it right all along.” For a start, he’s never heard of me.

Nonetheless, he echoed many of my complaints when he blamed teachers’ heavy workload on that mistrust, observing that the workload problem was identified a decade ago and initially addressed by employing more teaching assistants. Though there are now more people working in the system, the workload issue is unresolved.  That went well, then.

Schleicher explained: “Lack of trust creates bureaucracy...and the need to control. For public accountability, you have to give records for everything… [the] price is teacher workload.”

Enter my fellow Tes columnist Yvonne Williams, expressing concern this week about the proposal for no-notice Ofsted inspections: “[Teachers] will teach their classes with one eye on the students and the other on the phantom inspectors who could drop in at any time. 

“Data-gathering, already excessive, will become routinely urgent, to ensure that it’s fully up to date when inspectors call. ‘Every lesson counts’ – and this will take an unbearable toll on overstretched teachers.”

Let’s be clear. The real problem is lack of trust in teachers: Ofsted is an effect, not the cause. Meanwhile, Estonia, celebrating its spectacular rise in the Pisa table (compared to the UK’s merely modest progress), has, in Schleicher’s words, “a very light culture of inspection”, as opposed to our “heavy bureaucratic, intrusive kind of inspection regime”.

Time for a creative approach

Schleicher says schools should be saying to themselves: “Here are the challenges – we are going to solve them.” In his vision, schools are the cutting edge, and don’t wait for “any government or social service” to direct them. That sounds to me like an encouragement to ambitious schools to act independently and to develop creative approaches.

Creative approaches are what we all want, aren’t they? Well, yes: but not, apparently, at the price of allowing schools the freedom and teachers the trust necessary to achieve them.

The paralysing caution that gives rise to our heavy-handed accountability regime renders policymakers incapable of releasing the tight grip that constrains schools’ creativity. Ever seeking to perfect a production-line model, without variable outcomes, ministers’ timidity demands entirely predictable and rigorously measured results. Unsurprisingly, the DfE has declined to participate in Pisa’s new measure of creative thinking.

Those of us in the business know that the best, bravest teachers and schools succeed, despite all that pressure, in subverting the accountability straitjacket, in being creative in their teaching and in fostering creativity in their pupils. Who knows? They might lead us to score rather well in the Pisa creativity table – but they won’t get that chance.

Of course not. Perpetuating their antipathy to trusting teachers, policymakers fear that creative thinking will not emerge as a strength of our schools.  Entirely risk-averse, they won’t chance it.

Schleicher is fantastically well-informed, as well as visionary: but when it comes to influencing UK education I fear that, along with the rest of us, he’s whistling in the wind.

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

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