Rebalancing the system

If you’re a passenger in a car with badly aligned wheels you don’t really notice the difference. The car takes you from A to B the same, perhaps not quite as comfortably or quickly, but it does the job. But the driver of course does notice the difference. Even when travelling in a straight line it is hard work, turning corners more so. The driver gets from A to B, but the journey is harder and they finish much more tired than necessary. They wonder if they want to make the journey again.

In schools students are still learning but the impact on those providing that education are feeling the strain. We’ve moved on to the point where even the DfE is admitting that we have somewhat of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, aided and abetted by a workload crisis. Measures to improve resilience in trainee teachers are being looked at and restrictions re skills tests for trainee teachers are being loosened to try and bring more teachers into the profession. Meanwhile the department is still pushing their (in my opinion) ineffective workload reports as a means to reducing the pressure on teachers already in the classroom.

Applications for teacher training are down and schools continue to find it difficult to attract staff. Those in disadvantaged areas in “difficult” schools that have always had problems attracting staff continue to do so, whilst those schools in leafy suburbs now have the added issue of house prices in their areas preventing teachers moving into the area.

All of this sounds like a crisis. And it is.

But it’s also an opportunity.

So, now you’re expecting an argument for more technology in classrooms., or holographic teachers, aren’t you? Or a suggestion to reorganise school structures, teaching four classes at once in the hall?

No, that’s not what I think should happen.

In any system there are different groups of people. Whilst we like to think of schools as running with one big team, and for the most part, that how successful schools do run, there are still groups within the team. In schools there are Teachers, SLT, Administrative staff, Teaching Assistants. Then there are the external groups. Top of the pile there’s DfE, then there are Ofsted, LA advisors, RSC teams.

At different times the degree of power each of these groups has shifts. What happens in schools depends on where that power is at any one point. They would argue against this viewpoint but many in the profession would say that the cause of the current workload crisis has arisen because of the relative weakness of school leadership compared to the massed battalions of Ofsted and the accountability system, added to the relative weakness of teachers compared to SLT.

So, who has the power in the system at the moment. Particularly, within schools, in an era of teacher rarity, where does the power balance lie between SLT and teachers?

I’m not talking here at a national, unionised, level. Not that national teacher unions would have an impact here – a union worth its name would never have allowed its members to get to this point. Also, this is very much the issue that a College of Teaching should be tackling but I see very little evidence that it is.

I’m talking at the local level. Putting aside the house price issue, teaching is a highly mobile profession. This is even truer at a time of teacher shortage. Teachers should be using this power, or influence if you’re uncomfortable with the word power, to change their working conditions. To bring an end to those things we know don’t help.

Don’t think triple marking is helping? Then change it. Don’t think marking every book every day helps? Then change it. Don’t think entering 150 data points for each child every half term helps? Then change it. Don’t think spending 50 hours writing reports helps? Then change it.

Of course all this requires an understanding that the rest of the sentence is “…or I go somewhere else.” Teachers have always had this power; it’s just that at the moment it’s at its height.

To those who would say “But this is blackmail, Mike” I’d answer “Yes, it probably is, but if you won’t make changes to my workload that make my job doable, and my life liveable, then so be it.”

Of course, sensible leadership teams recognise this, and are already working to make many of these changes. They are working with the grain, and their staff and their students benefit. But many, though they recognise the need to change, are still fearful of the accountability pressures and their impact on their school. It is here that teachers need to make their views felt and use the “influence” they have to nudge their school in the right direction, to put their finger on the scale to balance the Ofsted and DfE influence over their school.

As a driver you have three choices. Carry on as you are, tired and hating your driving. Or you dump the car that’s making you feel that way and get a new one. Or, perhaps more sensibly, you can re-align the wheels and fix the car.

Everyone benefits.