How can Britain build a ladder of excellence in our school system?
Some of our journalists and some of our politicians believe we need our schools to open sooner rather than later. Here I explain why we need to listen to our teachers and school leaders during COVID-19 pandemic
It’s been three years since I last met John Hattie, one of the world’s most-cited educators. I’ve been using some time at home to ‘read up’ on some of his research, learning more about what makes many of our teachers and schools so successful.
In recent weeks with COVID-19 pandemic, observing some right-wing journalists and economists, you would be forgiven for thinking that ‘schools were closed’ when indeed many have ‘always been open’ for vulnerable pupils and key worker children. Some have claimed that teachers are sitting on their backsides at home, on full pay! There are so many myths associated with teaching by the general public. Most rely on their episodic memory, a section of our long-term memory which can be emotional and unreliable.
Our memories of school will fail you…
People recall personal stories in their lives, rooted in time and place – a bit like a movie where you are the star of the show – and these memories are recalled without trying. The problem is these types of memories are not enough for academic learning; dare I say for people outside of education to hold a reliable view of what teachers and schools should be doing. Thus, our perceptions of what we once did at school may conflate with what believe to be correct, rather than what the evidence says.
British teachers work hard, despite low autonomy
Since I met Hattie, on my travels to 170+ schools across the world, I have seen good evidence (hard and soft) that our British schools are performing well, considering our teachers lack some of the worst teacher-autonomy (being trusted) in all OECD countries, have a crowded curriculum operating on a shoestring budget, yet perform well in the PISA tests. To our economists, this is a great model for productivity!
My concern today is that our teaching workforce is in a position in which teachers and school leaders believe their professional wisdom is no longer valid. We only need to turn on the news to see articles and videos on ‘homeschooling’ or ‘home learning’ cited by celebrities, rather than by actual teachers. Academically, this is something I have been studying which is known as the Kardashian Effect: “to share an opinion and be viewed as a voice of authority, particularly when an individual may not be an expert in the field, but their opinion is taken as a credible source because of the numbers of people they influence.” Note, experience in teaching does not necessarily mean expertise.
Measuring teachers won’t grow a better education system
With the influx of business capital influencing government policy and stretching school budgets, exam performance and a desire to show value for money (at least in England) are becoming paramount and our schools. And do not be fooled that these pressures do not exist in independent and international schools. This has become very apparent during Coronavirus as teachers are furloughed because they earn a salary from private income streams. The pressure is very real in these institutions because money is handed over directly by the parents, rather than via the government. These schools are very conscious of value for money and all decisions matter.
Yet, whether private or state, the growing climate of competition within education means teachers ‘take responsibility for working harder, faster and better as part of our sense of personal worth and in relation to the worth of others’ (Ball, 2016). And whilst teachers may not have long working hours directly dictated, often it is the pressure that the system places on itself, challenged by attainment targets, parental expectations and league tables. These veiled threats prevent teachers from escaping a heavy workload, or taking much-need time to learn and share.
Why are so many of our teachers and schools so successful?
Joe Public believes we need more performance-related pay, more ‘carrots on sticks’ or greater accountability on our schools, rather than looking at more carefully the variants that make our teachers teach better, instead of ‘these teachers’ need to be fixed. Teaching is not an industry where you become an ‘expert’ upon qualification. In other sectors, doctors and lawyers have ‘practising’ years or painters and decorators have an ‘apprenticeship’ before being let loose on the public, charging full pay for their services.
In a TED talk video by John Hattie, he explains some of the great things that our teachers do and what influences pupil achievement and what decreases it, unpicking ¼ billion pieces of student data in his research databases. This data covers influences from the home, from the school, from the community and policies to the curriculum, the strategies and the parents. Everything. Hattie has them all and has published his effect sizes on achievement. His conclusion?
Our teachers see the potential in our young people and there is a lot of expertise in our schools and it needs to be identified by Joe Public. Yet Hattie also argues that “we need to get rid of the people” in our system that says ‘”we know how to fix schools.” Teachers included! In essence, when we look at achievement, anybody can fix it. Everybody can start with a pupil on a B grade, teach them for a year and move them up to grade A. I won’t go into the details of Hattie’s effect sizes as they have already been written about for years on hundreds of other blogs, but it is worth noting, no ‘structural effect’ in terms of logistical changes to how schools are organised, have a significant impact on pupil outcomes.
The greatest impact on pupils is the teacher
Hattie (2013) says that it does not matter what type of pupil you have, for example, whether pupils come from a divorced home, they are adopted, have a poor diet, lack sleep, have diabetes or what job their parents have, each of these influences has a negligible impact on pupil outcomes. He also goes on to discuss teaching styles, problem-solving skills and more. The result? It doesn’t matter. They have little influence on outcomes. Technology also takes some critique. Our politicians only want to improve what they can see, not the teachers who work together, collaboratively. Factors which are unobservable to the general public. Teachers working together, developing their knowledge, is one of the greatest predictors for pupil attainment. Our teachers’ collective expertise to improve the system. Tricia Taylor, author of Connect The Dots says: “Children benefit from experiencing a concrete, episodic experience prior to learning more abstract concepts.” I think some of our general public would do well to go back and visit our schools.
In conclusion, our teachers are the experts. Therefore, we need to open our schools sooner rather than later, but only when the science suggests it is safe to do so. Particularly because our disadvantaged pupils need our help, not some of our journalists and politicians ‘slagging off teachers’ for being at home on full pay, whilst they shout about any privileges from their cosy homes.
We need to empower our teachers to give back to the system, not rely on our politicians, parents and journalists who have an unreliable perception of what works.