How can we sort our education system once and for all?
This article was published in the NEU Report Magazine (National Education Union), January 2018 by Alex Tomlin.
“… There are many fires to fight in education, starting with funding and standing up to Ofsted.”
Ross Morrison McGill, better known to his 182,000-plus Twitter followers as @TeacherToolkit, is excited about his future after making the momentous decision to step away from teaching after 24 years. Having started training as a teacher at 18, McGill has spent his whole career to date working in state schools in north London, as a middle leader, a senior teacher, and, for the last three or four years, a deputy head “in difficult circumstances”. Ultimately, those circumstances caused him to leave day-to-day school life and concentrate fully on his TeacherToolkit website, along with a teacher-training role, which has given him time to reflect on education from a different perspective.
Do what I can for teachers …
“All I’ve ever known is teaching,” McGill says. “I never thought I’d step out, but now I have, I can reflect and go around schools; I’m richer in knowledge. My passion for TeacherToolkit has given me the opportunity to reflect on the difficulties I, and others, face, and the possible solutions. I now have a duty and obligation to challenge policy and do what I can for teachers.” He is certainly a man of influence, dubbed the ‘most followed teacher on Twitter in the UK’ and writing one of the most widely read blogs in the country. In 2015, he was named one of the ‘500 most influential people in Britain’ by Debrett’s. He accepts he is one of a modern breed of bloggers who have become influential in the education debate, and is even something of a celebrity – with many keen to get a selfie with the man behind @TeacherToolkit. His foray into blogging came about in trying personal times in 2010, using the internet to keep relatives up to date with the progress of his prematurely born son. Having found this a cathartic process, he moved to writing about education, striking a chord with his views and ideas. “I’ve started Twitter wars, been under troll attacks, dictated agendas, exposed things, seen Ofsted documents and challenged [schools minister] Nick Gibb about the EBacc policy,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s just me alone. I guess I’m a news conduit. People ask me to blow the whistle on their behalf.”
However, the bread and butter of both his teaching and his online life are ideas about how to improve practice in the classroom. “My passion is common-sense ideas,” he says. “Some of those ideas are a solution to a broken system; many are to reduce workload and increase impact. Some are to bypass measures about how you are judged or reviewed on how a student makes progress. “We always make progress through learning, but now they’re trying to define it. We had Ofsted myths about 20-minute progress in lessons. I’ve had teachers telling me privately that their head is still telling them they need to make progress in 20 minutes – it’s just nonsense.”
The final nail in the coffin!
Indeed, McGill describes his most recent experience of Ofsted, where he disputed its use of data, as “the final nail in the coffin” [alongside an incoming MAT and his part-time request placed in jeopardy] that caused him to move on from teaching. However, it is clear many of the previous nails were also hammered in by brushes with the inspectorate, which have left him with “scars”. “I’m sure I’m not the only person,” he says. “There are thousands of great teachers, dedicated to education, forced out of schools by people who love an Ofsted report and love an Ofsted banner, who believe in the tripe sometimes written on reports.” Much of the excessive workload blighting the profession stems from Ofsted too, McGill says, although he believes school leaders, including himself, have to take some responsibility. “I think the key driver of teacher workload is Ofsted, and I’m not denying school leaders are partly to blame as well. I’ve been part of that. I’d been trying to lead teaching and learning from behind a desk, crunching numbers – what was I doing? That’s not my passion. I was trying to produce evidence. We’ve got to stop doing silly stuff because of external forces.”
He does acknowledge Ofsted’s efforts to improve perceptions of itself, although says there is more to be done. “Ofsted has done a lot of great work, [its national director of education] Sean Harford has been fighting fires on Twitter, although a lot of teachers are not on Twitter. “And half of school leaders haven’t even seen the [Government’s] workload recommendations or posters,” he continues. “It’s quite frightening that they haven’t seen advice on reducing workload and supporting staff.” He asks why the workload posters say ‘what Ofsted wants’ to see. “Why don’t they say what teachers want?” he asks. McGill says too much work in schools is dictated by perceptions of what inspectors want to see, or by the goal of achieving a certain Ofsted grade, something Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman told Report in October that she did not want schools to do. McGill would like to see the current grading replaced by a simple two-tier system, whereby a school is classed as either ‘good’ or ‘not yet good’ because it is on the journey to ‘good’.
The current system, he believes, is a clear example of the tail wagging the dog, with many schools acting on what they believe Ofsted wants to see, rather than on what they believe is best for learners. “If an inspector comes in and tells you how to do something, you’re going to do it to suit the inspector. “These Ofsted banners outside schools saying ‘outstanding’ are celebrating the machine. And we need to stop it. We all need to stop, to change it.” He relates a recent press story about a school with a curriculum designed around the stage a pupil is at, rather than their age. This is an example, he says, of a school being brave and trying something different, yet the press story was about the school being judged inadequate by Ofsted. “Other schools see that,” McGill says, “and they say ‘we don’t want to try that because Ofsted will give us inadequate. We’re just going to do the template that everyone else wants us to do.’”
… if we all do what is right, we can dictate the agenda.
He pulls out a well-thumbed and heavily annotated copy of Flip the System by Jelmer Evers, saying it talks about 99% of what school leaders do is to fulfil the tick-list of external verifiers. “But you know as a school leader that what you’re doing is not right. Ultimately people have mortgages to pay and if that’s how the machine judges you, it’s how you behave. It’s my belief that we all need to start being braver, because if we all do what we know is right for kids, we’ll start to dictate the agenda.” McGill wants to see more teacher involvement in policy-making, with a national steering group, akin to a school governing body, containing expertise in curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning, data, and so on. “We can’t just have Justine Greening, Nick Gibb and a few advisers churning out their preferences,” he says.
“In the next election, if we go back to Labour, we’ll get new policies, abandon this and that, and keep teachers busy with reforms. “You go into schools now and teachers don’t have time to breathe. They have no time for marking, so they end up taking it home, and then you have teachers crying about 60-hour working weeks and the leadership team beating them over the head for not marking in a pink, green and red pen. It’s a sad state of affairs. “Teaching is a very complicated business; it’s a very emotional career. Everyone has an opinion on teaching because they all went to school. There are the battles – traditional or progressive, Labour or Tory. I think we need to get to a place where there’s governance of a mixture of people, pockets of expertise for teaching and learning, etc.
The entire world is looking at England and thinking ‘what the hell’s going on?’.
“Working with kids is always going to be hard work. It can be helped by removing the external stuff we don’t need: judging a school, forcing school leaders to jump through hoops. But if you jump through the hoops, you keep your job, no one gets made redundant, and parents want to send their kids to your school, so your funding is fine.” McGill says the ideas in his most recent book, Mark, Plan, Teach (deliberately in that order), may be the product of a broken system, and that is backed up by the fact that the themes of workload and funding run through it. The two are linked, but McGill thinks it is the lack of money that is crucial. “We need to get to a place where schools are funded better, not just so they can fund staff and kids to go on school trips, but so staff can mark, plan and teach during the school day, and have time to reflect, to train, and to visit other schools.
Every teacher would be better if they had more freedom and choice. “There are so many fires to fight,” he concludes. “We have to pick the biggest, and that is funding.”
Article written by Alex Tomlin.