If we surveyed teacher-perspectives on the standards agenda in England, what would they say?
This is my summary of a paper, published by Zeta Williams-Brown and Micahel Jopling of Wolverhampton University: Teacher perspectives on the standards agenda in England.
As part of my own doctoral research, I am exploring teacher autonomy, particularly on social media, which requires me to read various papers on teacher voice, agency and autonomy. I aim to unpick if school standards in England are rising.
Have school standards improved?
“The findings show that there remains a variation in perspectives on whether the standards outcomes provide constraint or flexibility. Teachers continue to hold negative positions and are frustrated by the importance placed on Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs).”
Of interest, there was more resistance from teachers taking part in this survey (2019) compared to when the original study was carried out in 2010/11; especially evaluating children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Politics and education
Politics and its connections to education in England has become commonplace since the 1970s. Williams-Brown and Jopling reference how politicians consistently draw upon “a discourse of crisis” prior to general elections. The notion that a “breakdown in the education system and the rest of society” can be reversed by significant change.
The paper discusses brief education history, heralded the introduction of a new, “more competitive ethos among schools, promoting market-led, public-facing change in the education system based on neoliberal performativity and accountability.”
I have recently written about this in my latest doctoral paper, explaining how modern populism is now evident on social media, with individual teachers competing with one another. The free market has reached individual classrooms!
The paper references an excellent quote to describe neoliberalism:
“A theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong property rights, free markets and free trade (Harvey, 2005, 2).”
Note, Scotland has been more resistant to this market-driven approach, “reinstating elements of traditional pedagogy and qualified teacher status.”
Has Ofsted raised school standards?
The Education Reform Act (1988) was the beginning of reduced local authority oversight, aligned with an attempt to raise standards through the implementation of a national curriculum, reformed O-levels and the emergence of SATs as well as our beloved Ofsted school inspection service.
I have been digging deep for at least 10 years, trying to fathom out if Ofsted has actually raised school standards. amongst the abundance of research to say that it hasn’t, I’m yet to find anything conclusive from anybody else other than Ofsted to suggest otherwise.
Local autonomy coupled with national control was a result ” of the wider opening of the public sector to marketisation and competition.” We have seen this same pattern evolved through our utility companies, for example, our railways, water and gas providers.
A national curriculum
Having a national curriculum offers a level playing field, but at the same time, it limits innovation and reduces teachers responsibility for designing their own curriculum and using their professional judgement. The latest TALIS survey reveals that teachers in England have one of the lowest teacher autonomy in all 48 OECD countries.
This is worrying.
A standardised curriculum allows the government to control classroom content, steering pedagogy at a distance, even though I firmly believe that when the classroom doors closed, teachers are the ones in charge. In toxic schools, some school leader keep a firm grip on teacher, decision-making.
You can see why the importance of inspections and league tables is critical for the government to keep that pressure up.
“The relationship between the government, schools and teachers became more hierarchical in schools and teachers were expected to implement national outcomes.” The research paper signposts that centralising curriculum and assessment processes have had a significant impact on teachers’ professional status.
Competition and accountability
SATs and league tables were first published in 1992, the year I began teaching. Every year, apart from this year during lockdown, there has been an annual outcry to abolish SATs by teachers and parents. The absence of any abolition of exam testing has been missed because of the wider and more significant issues we have all faced during COVID-19.
It is no surprise that league tables and progress 8 measures have had the change year-on-year to adapt with all the inconsistencies, unfairness or bias, and gaming.
With the introduction of Ofsted in 1992, and I quote, “a non-ministerial department required to undertake intermittent external assessment to ensure that they were adhering to standards outcomes”, with the aim that “school improvement would evolve through inspection and enhance schools’ public accountability for their actions” the Department for Education (2011) described this accountability era as an “information revolution.”
How wrong our policymakers were.
Only last year, Ofsted overhauled their reporting to parents, with shorter and more simplified language so that parents actually read the report, despite their overall judgements of a school being weak predictors for student success.
A change in the standards agenda
Every year, we see a contextual change in how exams are reported and how schools are measured. If reporting on school performance was such a good idea, why is there a need to change it every academic year?
You may be familiar with some of the following government straplines.
“Standards not structures”, (DfEE, 1997). Literacy and numeracy strategies (1998). Every Child Matters (DfES, 2004). A self-improving school system (DfE, 2011) to name a few…
Educational reform, particularly on standards, has always focused on conformity and constraints. Like a tight, iron-fist, standards will rise with a stronger grip of what our ~24,000 schools do under the umbrella of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum. The latest dialogue is on a knowledge-rich curriculum and a change in long-term memory…
The original 2010 study used Q-methodology (investigating the complexity in different participants’positions on a given subject) and their overall perspectives. From reading the paper, there appears to some variation in autonomy and flexibility depending on which year group a teacher worked with. For example, a year 6 teacher reported lower autonomy.
Almost all teachers revealed a clear division between the government’s and their own definition of school success.
Ten years later, the same study investigated teachers perspectives on inclusion. Reading through the research paper, three groups of teachers emerge.
1. I do not believe standards is my priority
“Teachers in this group believe they held a contrasting perspective on standards to the government.” These teachers do not believe that a good teacher places league tables as the most important aspect of their job. Having worked in outstanding and special measures schools with some of the most disadvantaged children in the UK, I would probably place myself in this camp.
2. I believe that teachers should be accountable
This group of teachers believe that teachers should be held accountable to standards and that all children are considered within the outcomes, although they recognise there are multiple barriers to learning.
It’s funny this, because I believe teachers should be held to account and that I certainly wouldn’t want anyone teaching our children without proper training or qualification, and once in the classroom, certainly not to take their foot off the gas. The vast majority of people working with education want some form of accountability, but that it is reported more intelligently and with fewer high-stakes outcomes.
3. The standards agenda is full of constraints
The final group believe there are many barriers to implementing the government’s standards agenda. These teachers believed in achieving league tables, but they felt they had “little choice in implementing the outcomes which placed too much pressure on all children achieving and leaving aspects of children with SEND failing.”
Put simply, “they do not believe the standards outcomes are inclusive.”
We only need to look at the increase of exclusions and mental health, and the rise of homeschooling to start asking ourselves questions about our curriculum and standards agenda being driven in our state schools.
The research concludes that “the teachers saw only constraints in outcomes”, rather than curriculum decision making and school structures. What is interesting is that teachers who work with key stage one students now feel the same pressure as teachers working in key stage two.
Increased government pressure will soon reach every four-year-old across the country when the reception baseline test is finally introduced and reported.
“Teachers are frustrated with the narrow parameters of success”, and the difficulties with the time-consuming nature of the SAT process. The teachers emphasise that not all children can achieve these narrow parameters of success and that the teacher would choose to measure children’s success in a different way.
The findings from this study suggest that teachers are still struggling with the consequences of the government’s standards agenda, decades after its introduction.
I suspect this will continue for years to come, given that we are all worried about education standards post-COVID. The researchers conclude, measuring a plant doesn’t help it to grow. You can access the paper on Taylor Francis Online.