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Building schools of thought

Despite their know-how, barely one in three teachers in England feels valued. Lessons need to be learned from the ground up, argues Fiona Carnie

Posted by Julian Owen | April 10, 2018 | People, policy, politics

If there is to be any hope of transforming the life chances of children and reducing social inequalities, we need a teaching workforce that is confident, well-trained and trusted. Whilst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Director, Andreas Schleicher, argues for a collaborative model of reform in which teachers play a key part, successive Secretaries of State at the Department for Education have chosen the opposite path: a top-down model conceived and imposed from the centre. According to the OECD, 35% of teachers in England feel their profession is valued by society, compared with 66% in Korea and 60% in Finland.

In Wales, where education is currently undergoing an in-depth review to rewrite the curriculum and overhaul assessment procedures, the Welsh Government has recognised that, in the future, Wales will need a different type of teaching professional; one who has significantly more responsibility and understands the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of teaching.

In Scotland, with the introduction in 2010 of the skills-based Curriculum for Excellence, there has been a move away from a top-down model of change to an approach which sees teachers playing a central role. They are encouraged to be reflective practitioners and change-agents who can share and develop ideas within their schools. A new National Improvement Framework introduced in 2016 cited teacher professionalism as one of the key drivers of improvement.

The question for all who are concerned with education in England, and one that is frequently articulated, is: how can the tide be turned so that teachers feel valued and gain the support they need to be the best that they can?

A good start might be to create opportunities for discussion and collaboration within schools to mitigate the professional isolation that many staff feel. Not just opportunities to talk about their work, but opportunities to discuss the values, vision and direction of their school in order to develop a shared sense of purpose. Time needs to be set aside for this on a regular basis; as happens, for example, in Finland.

"We need a cultural shift at school level so that governing boards and multi-academy trusts take account of the voices of their staff – as well as parents and students - in school decision-making."

Many teachers went into teaching with high ideals. This motivation can be kept alive by encouraging ongoing reflection about school policies, and the ways in which these facilitate the positive development of the school and the nurturing of all students. For too long, debate has been the exclusive preserve of school leaders and governors; whilst most schools have teacher representation on their governing boards, their position is rarely one that is given much weight. This needs to change so that teachers’ voices are heard where it counts.

American studies find that when teachers are engaged in school decision-making and collaborate with school leaders and with each other, school climate improves. This promotes a better learning environment for students, raising student achievement, and a better working environment for teachers, reducing teacher turnover. Schools, therefore, have everything to gain from developing a more reflective and participative ethos.

Hearing what teachers have to say about their professional lives, their day-to-day experience in the classroom, and the support they need to address the challenges they face, would be a good starting point to address the recruitment and retention crisis. It is not a tokenistic, phoney form of consultation that is required, but a genuine dialogue at all levels.

At national level, policy makers have everything to gain from listening to those on the ground and reflecting what they find in education decision-making. Teachers are at the heart of our school system and therefore key stakeholders to be consulted in the development of policies which they play such an integral part in delivering.

We also need a cultural shift at school level so that governing boards and multi-academy trusts take account of the voices of their staff – as well as parents and students - in school decision-making. Teachers are the experts on the ground. If they are listened to and valued as professionals, schools and academies will be better placed to meet the needs of the communities they exist to serve.

Fiona Carnie is an educationalist and writer. Her book, Rebuilding our Schools from the Bottom Up: Listening to Teachers, Children and Parents,is published by Routledge (2018).



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