This too shall pass

First published January 2013

I’m writing this on the morning of 1st January 2013 and the sun is shining brightly.

The first email I opened today was from a headteacher I respect very highly. He wrote: ‘The sun is shining here. It feels different’.

That’s how it feels for me too: different.

Because, in education at least, 2012 was not a happy year. While there were plaudits from various outside flankers of the media for Michael Gove’s sledgehammer reforms of everything educational, most working in education are depressed by the fanatical pace of change.

Our critics, of course, will see this as the badge of the Luddite – we are simply enemies of reform and apologists for too much mediocrity.

Yet my personal reading list this holiday has included a measured re-reading of Hargreaves and Fullan’s Professional Capital in which they say:

When the classroom door is closed, the teacher will always remain in charge. Where students are concerned, the teacher will always be more powerful than the principal, the president or the prime minister. Successful and sustainable improvement can therefore never be done to or even for teachers. It can only ever be achieved by and with them.

This isn’t evasive or soppy. It’s toughly realistic and pragmatic.

If we are genuinely to improve our education system then it will be the teachers who do it, not the politicians. Structural change – academisation and free schools – may grab headlines, but it isn’t in any way guaranteed to improve what happens in the classroom. In fact, it could simply distract school leaders from our core purpose of developing the quality of teaching and learning.

My optimism this new year comes not just from that unexpected burst of 2013 sunshine, but from Hargreaves and Fullan’s assertion that ‘in the opening years of the 21st century, the tide is turning toward teachers again’.

Because that’s how it feels to me too.

Something happened after the GCSE fiasco last summer. Teachers and school leaders started to say, via social networking sites and at conferences such as those organised by the National Education Trust, that enough is enough.

They said, quite rightly, that using the failure of the bodies supposed to ensure standards as an excuse to dismantle a whole system and rush in a new back-of-a-fag-packet exam, the English Baccalaureate, was foolhardy.

They said the snobby caricatures of the state system and its teachers were unacceptable and doing us, our students and parents a disservice.

Lots of us were personally and professionally damaged by the GCSE fiasco last summer: too many schools saw a catastrophic slump in their results, for reasons not of their making, and we will be paying the price in this year’s squalid performance tables.

Yet my prevailing optimism – despite this gloomy context – comes from the people I work with and talk to, the teachers and school leaders in the many schools I know and engage with.
My optimism comes from the parents who remind me that what they want from their children’s schools is moral integrity, good discipline, interesting lessons and, crucially, other stuff that builds character – such as sport, music drama. They want what Ofsted and performance tables often won’t tell them, the integral aspects of good schools that aren’t easily quantifiable or measurable.

I’m optimistic too because I know that a government entering the second half of its tenure may currently be happy to denigrate teachers and to suggest schools are generally rubbish. But they are on a kamikaze mission if they continue to do so. At some point they will need to take responsibility for their reforms, their words, their tone.

But chiefly I’m optimistic because I work with young people and have done for 28 years, and they do me good.

In my experience, they remain feistily curious, morally grounded, full of integrity, full of optimism and certainly quite dissimilar from the caricatures I see of teenagers in too much of the media.

Even if my prediction that 2013 will be a more positive year on the national education scene proves unfounded, I’ll do what I have all these years had the pleasure of doing: closing the classroom door and reminding myself what it’s all about – the privilege of working with great young people and doing my best to prepare them for an uncertain world.

Which is just what thousands of colleagues of mine in schools across the UK will be doing too.

Happy New Year!

Geoff Barton is Headteacher at King Edward VI School, a 14-18 state comprehensive school in Suffolk.  He is the author of Don’t Call it Literacy! (Routledge).

This article was first posted on the National Education Trust’s website:

Follow Geoff on twitter: @RealGeoffBarton

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