Posts Tagged ‘teacher training’

On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…

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Thoughts of a somewhat reluctant teacher

July 11, 2018

As I grow older, anniversaries become ever more lapidary; this afternoon I realised with a shock that it was 40 years since I gained my PGCE. It was always going to be teaching or journalism; I can still recall the careers’ advisor’s face after she had tentatively suggested advertising and I’d told her all advertising was immoral… and teaching seemed like a more secure prospect than journalism.

Training at the long-gone or renamed CF Mott College at Prescott on Merseyside was interesting: I really enjoyed the theoretical side of teaching and the child development and psychology, found the English tutor’s input unbelievably dull and patronising, and my French was rather better than the French tutor’s, so I was mercifully spared the sessions in the language laboratory (some of my readers may need to look that up). One of my training schools was on three sites in Everton; after I’d finished five weeks of teaching a year seven class French – or attempting to – I was taken aback when a girl came up to me and asked, in the broadest of scouse accents, “Sir, can you speak French? Say something in French to me…’ My main training school had separate-gender staff-rooms (!) and, after I’d asked an awkward year ten boy to step outside the classroom temporarily and gone back a few minutes later to find him gone, to be told at break by the deputy head, ‘I took that boy off and thrashed him for you!’ I vowed not to do that again. When it was suggested I apply for a post at one of the top private schools in Cambridge, I realised I wasn’t ready for this lark just yet. I was still a hippy, and instead went off to do an MA and then an MPhil, which I enjoyed immensely.

It was nearly five years later, in the darkest days of Thatcherism, after I’d had enough of living on benefits, that I decided to cash in on my qualification and work as a supply teacher. Having taken on board the interviewer’s suggestion that ironing my shirts would be a good idea (!) I did my probationary year as a supply teacher in Hackney, breaking up more fights than I ever had to do afterwards, and scotching a year eleven boy’s attempt to burn down the classroom by throwing lighted matches into lockers… The money was good, and a year and five schools later, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School head-hunted me from ILEA’s lists as an English teacher, and I never looked back, spending a year and a half there under an inspirational Head of English.

What changed? I realised I could communicate my subject – after this time as an English teacher, my French never got a look in again – and my love for it, pretty effectively, and that speaking and listening was an aspect I was particularly strong in, as well as its being one which was only just coming to the fore in terms of both classroom and examination. I also realised that I worked far more effectively with brighter and more able students, and so that’s the track my career followed. I liked the edginess of the classroom, and the liveliness of discussion that was possible once the right boundaries had been agreed. Nothing was off-limits.

Having re-located to Yorkshire, I enjoyed six stimulating years at Harrogate Grammar School, under another wonderful Head of Department who allowed me to work to my strengths, and then went off to Ripon Grammar to run the English Department there for the rest of my career. And now I’m history: as of last summer, there were no students at the school who would have been taught by me…

So I was a reluctant teacher in some ways, and perhaps coming to the profession in my late rather than my early twenties made things easier, particularly in terms of establishing the right kind of distance between me and my students. I’d also had time to do a counselling training course, which was invaluable in so many situations throughout my career when dealing with difficult situations and students in need of advice and support.

I do have a lot of happy memories, of many students and teaching colleagues, some of whom I’m still in touch with. As a career it was a tough and demanding one – I have no patience with anyone whose opening gambit is along the lines of ‘oh, all those holidays!’ – but a very satisfying one, because of having played a part in shaping future generations, and sharing my love of my subject. I wouldn’t have done anything else: I made the right choice all those years ago.

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