Last week I wrote a piece suggesting that our profession is increasingly divided between “informed teachers” (who engage with discussions about education, manage their own CPD, read books, articles and blogs about teaching, tweet, reflect on their own practice) and “uninformed teachers” (who don’t). The first group are firmly inside the education-world bubble and the second may not even know this bubble existed.
This week I want to suggest that this divide goes further and is affecting entire schools; we have schools inside the bubble and those outside of it. The difference in these schools is stark.
I have worked in four schools during my time as a teacher and visited many others. Some of those schools have been ‘fine’, one was terrible and my current school is incredible. As well as my own experience, I also talk to dozens of teachers on a daily basis on Twitter and Facebook and it is becoming increasingly clear that we are having very different experiences of our jobs. You see this when;
- one group suggests that behavior might be a problem in schools and another responds in shock and denial,
- one group suggests we need more of a focus on teaching knowledge and the other says there are no schools that doesn’t do this already,
- one group bemoans that they are still being asked to teach according to learning styles and the other says that this no longer still happens.
These aren’t differences in opinion but differences in experience.
I’d suggest that the biggest factor driving these differences is that these schools are motivated by very different things. Some schools seemed to be motivated not by providing an excellent education but by appearing to provide an excellent education. This has some real consequences.
Signs that you work in a school that is motivated by appearance
- School leaders still observe lessons looking for poor proxies for learning such as busy students or fun activities.
- Marking policies which are about collecting evidence that marking has been done in a certain time period.
- New initiatives are brought in all the time but never seem to stick.
- People talking about doing something, such as intervention or contacting parents, to “cover their back”.
- An obsession with mocksteds and preparing for visits by external observers.
- A belief in the need for “non-negotiables” that are easy for a person on a learning walk to observe and monitor.
- Staff being given very little autonomy.
- One size-fits-all approach to CPD.
One teacher wrote to me to tell me of their contrasting experiences but requested to remain anonymous. They wrote;
At my previous school, the HT made decisions that he would then go back on. He would say certain things were going to happen then they wouldn’t and vice versa. He would even deny conversations had taken place. This led to a staff team having no idea where they stood and behaviour spiraling out of control. Then I moved. At my current school, the HT has a clear vision for the school and has a DHT who complements him perfectly. His manner is very supportive. The children at the school are friendly and well-behaved which I think is in large part due to the culture and atmosphere he has cultivated.
So why does this happen? Why are there some schools who are driven by appearance and others by genuine improvement? I think the reason is quite simple and was revealed in the responses to the above tweet. There are many leaders out there who lack the confidence to actually lead a school. Confidence is based on knowledge of what works and they just don’t have it. They are outside the bubble.
I was thinking about those people I know who work in schools where the obsession is with appearance and I noticed one defining characteristic of their leadership teams, they are incredibly insular. They say they don’t have time to read books about education, or blogs, or articles. They don’t attend conferences. They are not on twitter. They are not part of groups like HTRT, SSAT or the Chartered College. They have their own experience to rely upon but there is nothing new coming in.
Imagine a Head teacher on twitter. Think of the variety of views and experiences they are exposed to. The research, books and case studies. Can you imagine them continuing with a marking policy insisting there is “evidence of written feedback in books every two weeks” or still basing ideas on teaching and learning on the Pyramid of Learning, or not bringing in a centralised detention system? They would have to unusually obstinate to ignore the evidence they were seeing on a daily basis.
I don’t think that engaging with the education-world bubble should be seen as an optional extra for leaders who have enough time to engage with it. It should be seen as an intrinsic part of thinking strategically and improving schools.
High-stakes accountability seems to have created schools where leaders live in a constant state of terror. They know that improvements need to happen but they don’t know how to make them. Instead they blow with the wind, bringing in initiative after initiative but not giving anything the time to embed. They fall back on things they can control and monitor and avoid making difficult decisions because they lack the information to make them with. They feel threatened by anyone who raises a concern or suggests something new, worried that someone will realise they are out of their depth, and so hide in their offices.
I feel constantly blessed to work in a school where we are all rowing together. A school that is well inside the education-world bubble and where things are done out of a genuine belief they will lead to an excellent education for our children. It worries me that our school system is becoming more and more fragmented with schools left isolated and insular and, inevitably, driving teachers out of the profession and failing their pupils.
It is time for everyone, teachers and leaders alike, to create an informed profession and embrace the confidence that this builds.