I’m sorry to report this, but I spent a depressing evening last week in a group discussing religious education. Among those there were two parents, one foundation governor and other interested people, all, I guess, grandparents. I was the only one who confessed to having been a school teacher.
We listened to a podcast from the “Beyond Belief” series. The impression left by the BBC conversation was, as someone said, “dire”. Poor teaching, non-specialist conscripted teachers, confused aims. Well, that’s not my own experience in secondary schools where I taught and where my children went. Of course, inevitably, in primary schools teachers are in effect non-specialist in all subjects except their own. They are on the whole experts in bringing out the best in children.
However what depressed me most was the wholesale buying into the widely peddled myth about state education. That narrative goes that our state schools and their teachers are generally failing children. The truth is that it is politicians who have long failed schools. In my lifetime I remember only one Secretary of State for Education who was any use, and that was Estelle Morris, who held the post for barely a year. Her great qualifications were 1) that she had taught in a comprehensive, and 2) that she worked to improve schools, not to change the system. Every other Education Secretary from Margaret Thatcher onwards used the state school system to advance their own political career, by leaving their mark on it. One can hope that Justine Greening will prove to be an exception.
Whether it was changing the exam system, raising the school leaving age, introducing more and more testing and school league tables, introducing academies and free schools, changing inspection regimes, fast-track entry, there has scarcely been a minister that has not introduced a new pet scheme, while at the same time effectively talking down the teaching profession. If they refrain from overtly criticising teachers, they fail to respect their expertise and reward their hard work. Hardly ever have I heard a minister defending the long hours of overtime that teachers put in or praising their skill in communicating the excitement of a subject to a class of variously motivated teenagers. More often, as I’ve indicated, Secretaries of State will complicate the teacher’s lot by introducing yet another innovation for her or him to grapple with. And when you examine those politicians’ qualifications, they are usually nothing but having been a school and university student themselves. When they have a bright new idea, they would do well to listen to David Hare’s plea, in a different context, in Racing Demon, “Don’t do it, Charlie – it’s not fair.” Bishop Tom Butler quoted this on Thought for the Day (8thJanuary 1992) in a well-directed plea to politicians to leave teachers alone. “Continuous revolution,” he commented, “is not necessarily a helpful hallmark of an educational system.” Well, teachers have been living with it for over 25 years now.
When I was learning to teach, there was a great little book called The Craft of the Classroom by London headteacher, Michael Marland. It is full of advice about to structure lessons and inspire pupils. It ends, “"The craft won't work without a spirit compounded of the salesman, the music-hall performer, the parent, the clown, the intellectual, the lover and the organiser, but the spirit won't win through on its own either. Method matters. The more 'organised' you are, the more sympathetic you can be. The better your classroom management, the more help you can be to your pupils." I don’t know whether the book is put in the hands of new Education Secretaries. It ought to be. If they would only allow teachers to develop their craft and hone their skills without constant interference, they would be surprised at the results.
There are two teaching tips which ministers (and all managers, for that matter) would do well to heed. One is that you need to earn your students respect (and you do that by respecting them). The other is that they respond better to encouragement than to criticism.