As schools started back yesterday for a new term, it must have felt like another upward trudge with a boulder for our leather elbow-patched Sisypeans. We know this, after all, because a recent poll found 55 per cent of teachers describe their morale as “low” or “very low”.
The gripes are familiar enough. As well as the usual complaints about pay and working conditions, 77 per cent of teachers in the poll commissioned by the national union of teachers thought academies and free schools were taking education in the wrong direction; while 71 per cent said they rarely or never felt trusted by the government, (up from 54 per cent in April 2010).
But it’s the issue of school standards that still seems to grate most. Last November, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the new chief inspector of schools, presented Ofsted’s annual report. It found that schools in England are getting better – although there is still a long way to go before the nation catches up with the best in the world. There are also wide variations in the performance of schools across different local authority areas, leading to serious inequities for children in some parts of the country.
The product of nearly 25,000 inspections across schools, nurseries and colleges, it is a rigorous and useful reminder of the challenges we face in making all our schools the best that they can be. However Sir Michael’s analysis of the problem is not entirely shared, it is fair to say, by the teaching unions.
Chris Keates, general-secretary of the NASUWT complained about the “rhetoric of criticism and denigration which surrounds any announcement on the education service”. The national association of head teachers’ Russell Hobby, warned of “rogue elements” within Ofsted’s teams which makes the experience of inspection “subjective and demoralising.” While Christine Blower, general secretary of the national union of teachers, said the report amounted to “naming and shaming” local authorities’ schools.
But what cumulative message does it send out to sound utterly dismissive and resentful about the discipline of continuous improvement? There is not even the perfunctory boilerplate about “welcoming the report” or finding it “challenging”. Nothing but a whiny victimhood and rejection of the very principle of measuring how well our schools are performing.
But the solution is in the hands of teachers and schools themselves: if they don’t want to be weighed, measured and micro-managed, then don’t tolerate mediocrity. The profession needs to take charge itself by stopping poor quality teachers with little motivation and low aspirations for the kids they teach dragging it down.
Too many teachers (and social workers, for that matter) adopt a head in the sand mentality to criticism which means every time they fail to deliver the goods the politicians above them react by turning the screw on them. Often this is an over-reaction (and both professions have a point here) to some unrepresentative case where the system has failed spectacularly, but the result is always the same: another top-down reform which generates more form-filling and box-ticking. Hence, social workers complain that they now spend four-fifths of their time on paperwork.
Indeed, teachers – who have long been forced to contend with ministers’ itchy trigger fingers – often have a decent case to feel frustrated and got upon, particularly after Michael Gove’s various petty antagonisms.
But a clear focus on raising standards should be axiomatic. So why is it made to sound like an unwanted and unreasonable intrusion? Teachers do themselves no favours here. It is plainly absurd to churn out classload after classload of innumerate, barely literate young people who go on to fail in life.
Yet it continues to happen in too many places, generating a divide in education policy not between left and right but between those who prioritise producer group interests and those of us who see schooling as the best stab at encouraging social mobility.
The political class (particularly Labour) is so timid when it comes to addressing workforce failings in teaching that the problem is hardly ever discussed. Instead, the focus is almost solely on structural reforms like academies, hoping that if responsibility for the management of schools is devolved to a decent headteacher and governing body they will drive through improvements for the politicians.
But all roads ultimately lead back to teaching standards. It isn’t progressive or left-wing to tolerate failing teachers and schools. It’s socially unjust and economically wasteful. The teaching unions need to stop sulking and grab hold of the standards agenda with both hands – and Labour should be bolder in urging them to do so.
And for those of us who will die in the last ditch defending the comprehensive principle, a failure to hold the line on the importance of standards makes that task all the harder.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut
This piece has also been posted on Labour Uncut