Sunday, 20 March 2011

Response to Free Schools Discussion Thread

As an international educator of some 20 years standing that returned to this country to teach, but who left secondary school teaching in order to do what I love, teaching, I have a perspective that perhaps others do not. That said, I am heartened that so many of you have the intelligence, experience and perspicacity to analyse our system without the benefit of perspectives from outside the paradigm.
Here are my thoughts on this thread.

Train teachers to be the very best they can be. Resource them to be great. Get parents and communities totally behind them. Appoint great headteachers.

In my experience, great teachers are born. They can be educated to bring out that greatness, but to assume that anyone can be trained to be a teacher is part of what is wrong with the system. Other cultures refer to the pedagogic arts, not a mechanistic operation. It is like substituting painting by numbers for art. Great teachers are also themselves demonstrably lifelong learners that have very good levels of knowledge of other disciplines that they use to illustrate concepts within their own. They also have thorough knowledge of their specialism and can approach concepts from many different perspectives at a moment's notice. They have a sense of fun: are real, believable characters: take the time to get to know their students, both within and without the classroom: they have unambiguous affection for all their students and exercise total consistency in upholding the highest ambitions set out in the school's philosophy and mission statement.
Great teachers operate much less effectively without a close relationship with the student's parents or carers, so from a Free School's perspective, this should be enshrined in the philosophy and mission statement, thereby formalising an obligation to a parent/school partnership.
Resources are important, but, to quote my daughter who spent a few days in a state school, “Papa, where has all the money gone?” I had told her that the British government were pouring loads of money into state education. When I told her these things, neither of us had any direct experience of the system as it became in the last fourteen years. Until our school really got going, I had to scrounge materiel from anywhere I could for free, cannibalising for bits and making Heath Robinson efforts for practical work and bought chemicals from industrial suppliers at a fraction of the cost of that from educational suppliers. My colleagues in other disciplines did the same. Resources are not as critical as the inspirational teaching afforded by great teachers.
The most important resource is leadership and in that they must exercise a light hand. Inspirational heads are the figurehead for the philosophy and mission and should involve themselves in keeping the path open for the brilliance of great, inspirational teacher.
Very often inspirational heads become so by contact with their inspirational teachers.
Great schools are where the whole learning community live and breath the philosophy and mission and support each other in doing so – no us-and-them.

The relationship between politics and education is in fact relatively new.

. . .[C]hoice drives excellence . . .

It depends on the nature and degree of choice. I once had to babysit an East German post-doc student at Cambridge. I took him into Sainsbury's and apart from the fact that there was something on the shelf, he was astounded by the range of choice. For some reason, we were in the dog food isle and I remarked that there was probably 30 varieties of dog food here, to which he replied that it was still dog food.

And I believe you need the radical experiments to test and prove new solutions

Where's the experimentation? We all know what good teaching and learning looks like, we just have to free ourselves from the bureaucratic dogma that hinders great teaching and learning.

. . .[G]iven the point made in other LinkedIn threads about the failures of the last decade or more in education terms, spelt out in national (ONS) and international (OECD) data and other information which is available right now, the previous situation can hardly be held to represent 'what is known to work'

Have you seen any of the test papers for the PISA study? You can download them from my website. You will see that they are not very challenging, which suggests that our system is rather worse than it seems from its position.

. . . [P]urchasers of the service - namely, parents and their children . . .

Unfortunately, that which is communally owned most often suffers from the Tragedy of the Commons and is therefore not valued. Greater parental involvement assuages this to a very great extent.

Is 50% 5 A*-C's good enough for you?

Referring to GCSE, no, it is not. GCSEs are trivial in comparison to other educational systems. This level of qualification is more appropriate to year 9 for the average student.

. . .[A]s a nation we cannot afford not to invest in education.

More and better teachers.

How to improve education outcomes. Some starters for 10:
1. Stop messing with structures and processes
2. Radically reform teacher recruitment, training, monitoring and remuneration
3. Minimum age for teachers to be 25
4. Impose statutory obligations on parents re engagement with their child's education e.g. attendance at parent's evening, monitoring of attendance, checking records of achievment etc. etc. etc. etc.
5. Progression by stage not age
6. No league tables

Agreed! League tables operate much like quotas in the former USSR. You can have tables, but not the simplistic, easily reinterpreted things we have now.

Since everyone agrees that great teaching is the key element in improving educational outcomes for young people why aren't we discussing this?

Yes let's discuss this. It is pivotal.

I taught for twelve years in an environment where parental turn out at parent's meeting was 100% and teaching performance monitored annually and pay increments based on this monitoring.

Me too. Teachers also had two year contracts. The performance monitoring was mostly informal. SMT felt free to drop in to classes and did so regularly and were welcomed. Small to medium  salary increments were given for r&d into ways to improve the product  and larger increments for the degree of extra-curricular input.

I have personally known several schools, that have suffered when a good Headteacher has moved on and the choice of replacements has been so bad.

On the other hand I have seen great leaders hobbled, stymied and forced out by an intransigent and belligerent staff.I refer to my comments on leadership above.

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