Education: what needs to be done?

Education policy matters and, as the electoral dust settles, our new government will have some vital issues to address, particularly regarding school funding and the training of more teachers. Policy, however, has its limitations and there are currently a number of things that need to be done in our schools that a government can not or will not do. It is here that teachers have a vital role to play and, if we are not to miss out on some of the benefits of the reforms that have taken place in recent years, then these are the things that need to be done.

(1) Textbook writing

It does now seem to be more widely (if not universally) accepted that textbooks matter. It is also clear that textbooks in the past have tended to be of a poor quality (with some notable exceptions). My sense is that most textbooks are (a) pitched one Key Stage too low and (b) little more than revision guides for GCSE and A-Level. Teachers, teaming up with academic subject specialists, are the best people to write textbooks: ideally, this can be done through a mainstream publisher, but if you cannot get a publisher then why not just write one and put it out as an eBook that schools can print themselves? Currently we need more aspirational textbook writing showing what a textbook can be like, rather than more conservative publishing that continues with the status quo.

(2) Shared curricula models

A great deal has been written in blogs in the last year about the importance of curricula. I think it is a shame that the National Curriculum is not compulsory in all schools, though given the compromises that have to be made in putting together a National Curriculum it is I suppose helpful that schools can produce a more challenging curriculum if they so wish. This is what I would like to see networks of schools now doing, whether these be academy chains or other networks. A network of schools (say 5-10 schools) could easily collaborate on producing a curriculum for a subject, including all of the resources (and a textbook – see above) that could then be use by other schools (preferably for free) should they wish. The benefits in terms of curriculum coherence, shared standards and reduction in teacher planning load would be considerable. For an idea of how quickly something can be achieve, take a look at James Theobald’s recent call for ‘knowledge organisers‘.

(3) Shared common assessments and exemplar work

I shall say little here other than to point you towards Daisy Christodoulou’s recent blogs on assessment. In short, if schools are using a common curriculum model then it follows logically that schools can also share assessments and exemplar work.

(4) An ITE curriculum

We do not need another set of standards in teaching: we really don’t. What we need is a clear account of what we expect trainees to learn during their training. For too long the only common thread weaving its way through ITE has been a set of generic standards that are so broad that they are almost meaningless, and they provide very little guidance to ITE providers as to what ought to be taught. Government policy will determine how we fund trainees and who gets to provide that training: the Government will not, however, provide us with a curriculum for ITE. This is something that we need to do.

When I was in primary school, I used to love creating ‘clubs’ and ‘societies’. I liked making membership badges, giving people roles and making posters. These clubs invariably did very little and within a few weeks I was on to my next one. This will, no doubt, be a controversial statement, but I wonder whether at the present we are in a similar place in teaching: are we spending too long obsessing over the creation of professional organisations and not enough time producing the things that actually matter (such as textbooks)? It is probably more useful for a teacher to write a textbook or an ITE curriculum than it is to become the trustee of an organisation that might one day encourage teachers to write textbooks or ITE curricula.

We have work to do.

6 Comments on Education: what needs to be done?

  1. Aren’t there enough people about to do all three (and more) simultaneously? Developing the teaching profession isn’t quite like one student serial club-starter.

    • Currently the things I listed aren’t really happening, but agree that in theory all should be possible – this is more about priorities. It’s also interesting where the funding is going (e.g. college of teaching, character education) when we desperately need that money for curriculum development, textbooks and common assessments.

  2. Christine Counsell // 2 June 2015 at 20:48 // Reply

    Michael, re your Point 2, what are your thoughts on how such a ‘network’ might be formed?
    My own feeling is that this must be subject-driven, not school and not chain/alliance driven. By that I mean that a department must have a measure of autonomy to seek out the best-informed and/or like-minded (not nec the same thing I know) with whom they wish to collaborate.

    I’m thinking of this scenario. History Department X which is is passionate, knowledge and skilled in (say) transforming Year 8’s capacity to write informed, rigorous, meaty, edgy… history essays and which has got there (it believes, with some warrant, from its own and others’ research) by being knowledge-rich and knowledge-thorough in Year 7 as well as clear about distinctions between forms of historical analysis such as historical causation v. historical change, is hardly going to want to ‘collaborate’ with History Department Y, down the road, or in the same chain/alliance, which thinks progress in history is achieved through history skills, doesn’t have a culture of reading historical scholarship, is still so ignorant of history education literature that it is confusing skills with concepts and (just to add to the mismatch) is required by its SMT to use Blooms Taxonomy in all its lesson objectives or (crowning horror) required by SMT to steer all pupils who are not a safe bet for a ‘C’ in GCSE in away from history. It is hard to see how history Department X would be able to ‘collaborate’ (which suggests equal partners/ co-enquirers) with History Department Y whose intrinsic weaknesses worsened by senior management disdain for disciplinarity and ‘knowledge for all’ are antithetical to all that History Department X believes in and all that the research hitherto conducted by History Department X has shown.

    This all raises very interesting questions about tensions between the locus of warranted authority in curriculum matters, whether it lies with subject communities or with senior leaders or school alliances/chains. I think there probably are ways in which these two tiers of authority can work productively together, but it requires theorising about sources of professional authority. Where senior leaders (I’m thinking, happily, of yours) see it as their business to be knowledgeable about the very heart of a school’s business – the nature of the knowledge that is shared, built and renewed in classrooms; the character of boundaries between disciplinary fields and how these should affect the very heart of what we do, that is, work with ‘the life of the mind’ – then I could see that heads of departments have nothing to fear in discussing with their senior leaders the possibilities for departments with whom they might collaborate. In other situations (if my email inbox full of distressed and angry Heads of History is anything to go by), I worry. Boy do I worry.

    If such collaborations are to drive standards up (by which I mean the professional-academic work of *conception* or *definition* of standards, NOT spurious ‘standards’ in the sense of using existing increments such as Levels, nor even GCSE grades, which we know – in history at least – are founded on sand) then issues concerning the professional autonomy of subject leaders need to be explored and/or (more radically) issues concerning the knowledge necessary for SENIOR curriculum leadership need to be explored.

    What do you think?

    • christinecounsell // 3 June 2015 at 16:28 // Reply

      Line at start of my para 2 seems to have got scrambled. It should read: History Department X which is passionate about reading historical scholarship, systematic in building substantive knowledge and skilled in …

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