A Head Teacher’s Response – Find Professional Courage: The White Paper and a Profession in Crisis

The following post originally appeared in the Issue 6 of #TheFeed, and was written by Tom Rees, Head Teacher of Simon De Senlis Primary School.

Find Professional Courage; The White Paper and a Profession in Crisis?

It’s a funny old time in education at the moment; budget cuts and not enough teachers on the one hand yet higher expectations and increased accountability on the other. Every day another headline appears - either announcing the next government policy change or describing the latest union protest as they dig their heels in vehement opposition.

Forced Academies, a recruitment crisis, workload pressures and chaos around assessment; one could be forgiven for deciding it’s all too much and throwing in the towel. Many are considering joining those who write the seemingly mandatory blog about ‘why I’m leaving the profession’ which inevitably bemoans the Government and creates a long list of failings from successive Education Secretaries and then ends with a statement around why teaching isn't the job they came into.

Well I for one refuse to become the next noble protagonist in a Shakespearian-style tragedy by letting anyone spoil my fun. I became a Headteacher to play my part in helping young people to develop the skills, confidence and moral purpose to go out and be brilliant in a future which is vastly different to the past. It’s this challenge to reform our industrial-age school system to meet the demands of the modern world that interests me enough to want to stick with it, at least for a little longer.

Has the profession changed a lot in the 16 years I’ve been in it? Yes and no. Of course there have been significant changes to curriculum and accountability and different governments have kicked the profession around like the political football it’s become, but then what other profession or industry hasn’t undergone transformation in recent years? In essence, teaching remains the same: a teacher in a room with a group of young people who need the right balance of engagement, discipline, personal development and academic instruction.

"We could perhaps be more pragmatic and invest our attention into what positive work we can do to make the most of the opportunities that exist at this time of great change."

Teaching can be a tough job with long hours and (at times) can be stressful, but then so are many other professions without the privilege of working with children and sharing many special moments along the way.


Can we all please stop talking about Recruitment problems?

No one (well almost no-one) is now pretending that there isn’t a problem with Teacher recruitment and retention at the moment but there’s a lot of unhelpful rhetoric from all sides of the debate about how bad things are for everyone.   There’s just not enough action or leadership to help us navigate through these challenging waters and what we need most at the moment is an injection of pragmatism into proceedings.

Recent research by TES Global from a poll of 4,000 teachers backs up the unhelpfulness of the debate with the following key findings:

  • Talk of teacher shortages is selfperpetuating – over a third of teachers said talk about a “recruitment crisis” made them feel more likely to leave the profession.
  • But teachers want to play an active part in the debate about recruitment. 67% said they would feel more optimistic if they were treated as partners in the debate, rather than objects of discussion.

A clear message to all those outside of schools: politicians, unions, journalists and edubloggers (apparently they’re a category now) to resist the catchy headline or soundbite and just leave the profession alone for a bit.

And as it’s counterproductive, I’m not going to talk about it anymore and will instead turn my attention to what that White Paper offers us.

Seize the Opportunity that is the White Paper…

The White Paper has caused a predictable stir across the country with many now choosing to spend precious time in opposition to what it contains, particularly the section forcing all schools to become academies in the next five years. Blogs, letters, petitions and weekend conference events are all now part of a call to arms to oppose the reforms in which many teachers and school leaders are engaged.

Much as I hold many of these colleagues in great esteem and respect their perspectives and arguments, I think the horse has long since bolted, so we could perhaps be more pragmatic and invest our attention into what positive work we can do to make the most of opportunities that exist at this time of great change.

It reminds me of a poster that hung in my late Grandmother’s house:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Perhaps there are others with greater wisdom than I, but in my view the move for all schools to become academies was inevitable and, although unpopular, is the right call.

The alternative is to exist in a world of perpetual uncertainty. Everyone has felt for some time that this day would come and at least now there is an opportunity for schools to make concrete strategic decisions about their futures. Whether we like it or not, this Government was elected less than 12 months ago with a clear majority and has been adamant that there's no 'reverse gear' on this reform.

“This is now a ‘self-improving’ system and so we have to look in the mirror for the leadership and solutions.

It was Gandhi who told us that we must ‘be the change we want to see in the world’”

Let’s not also forget that if there is a Local Authority which operates so effectively that all its schools want to continue the status quo, there’s nothing to stop there being a MAT created which is built around the practices and ethos of the organisations and individuals currently involved.

Maybe it was the strong coffee, maybe it was because I had Kula Shaker’s new album on the headphones while I read (most) of the White Paper but I found inspiration and ambition within it. Working in Northamptonshire, one of the dark blue ‘weak’ (and underfunded) Local Authorities on page 7, I accepted within it the challenge to make my county a better place to teach and learn, even though our separation into co-existing (and potentially competing) MATs adds further complexity to this.

It’s pointless waiting around for the Government to give us the answers; this is now a ‘self-improving’ system and so we have to look in the mirror for the leadership and solutions.

It was Gandhi who told us that we must ‘be the change we want to see in the world’ and there’s a shining personification of his words in the form of Dame Alison Peacock, Headteacher of The Wroxham School and a member of the DfE’s Commission for Assessment without Levels.

Whilst the rest of us were blogging and tweeting about changes to statutory assessments, moderation and interim frameworks, Dame Alison stepped forward and reminded us of the real opportunity there is to improve teaching through becoming better at assessment to inform and improve teaching. We were freed from levels to use Assessment for Learning as it was always intended - to enable better and ‘responsive teaching’ and Dame Alison has called on us all to display the ‘professional courage’ to achieve this. Her creation of the #BeyondLevels and #LearningFirst movements offer the profession the opportunity to avoid schools just collectively funding a range of new tracking systems to translate old money to new.

The #BeyondLevels movement exploded in the blink of an eye and tickets for a Saturday conference sold out within hours on twitter to colleagues across the country who are desperate to work together.   A concrete example of what a self-improving system might look like? Watch this space over the summer.

So let’s take a lead from Dame Alison:

“Seize the moment; find our professional courage and remember that, despite being part of an increasingly fragmented system, we are actually all in it together.”

5 suggestions for positive thinking to avoid a summer of discontent…

Follow those school leaders and teachers who are engaging in the positive #LearningFirst movement by attending conferences or following the key messages to help make the most of the opportunity that a world without levels offers us.

  1. Read up and share the reports from the DfE Workload challenge groups (published at the end of March) at a staff meeting in school to look at how you might make more effective use of time and avoid spending lots of time doing things that aren't expected.
  2. Read this post from Secret Teacher in the Guardian which offers some refreshing perspective on teaching, entitled: 'I refuse to let negativity in teaching get me down.'
  3. Follow Sean Harford on Twitter who engages readily with the education community in his role as National Director of OfSTED. It’s refreshing to read Sean’s thoughts and comments on inspection and school development in general; it’s also worth reading the OFSTED ‘mythbusting’ document which offers clarification to schools on lots of messages that are often misinterpreted.
  4. If the busy summer term gets all too much, logon to this live stream from the International Space Centre and grab some perspective on how small and insignificant our worries and problems are when looked down upon from a great distance.
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