Notes from the Classroom

Michael-Gove-Education-Secretary

There have been completely justifiable nationwide teacher’s strikes over the past couple of weeks which I fully support. I love being in the classroom. I love the children I teach. They are what gets me up in the morning and what makes my job worthwhile. If if wasn’t for them, however, I would never have completed my training year, because it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that the teaching profession in this country is undermined, bullied and completely discredited by the government, which makes doing our job increasingly difficult. The goal posts change constantly, and the number of boxes to tick seem to grow day by day. The whole system is broken. When I think about the situation outside of my own classroom, it completely depresses me. Which is why I don’t try to think about it very often. However, I am aware that some people find my teaching posts a little naive, and that is why I wanted to focus this month’s teaching post on the negatives rather than the glorious positives in order to give a more balanced perspective.

The major issue, as I see it, is the ever increasing government involvement in how children are educated. Not only do they dictate what is taught, but they dictate how it should be taught, too. Ofsted, the government’s ‘impartial’ inspection body, has a list of criteria by which they judge teachers and schools. Regardless of how happy and successful the children in your classroom are, you will only be recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher if you have followed their prescribed method to make those children happy and successful. Lessons therefore become ‘tick box’ exercises, built around what Ofsted wants to see rather than what the children need and want. The decision by the government to publish league tables of school performance means that Headteachers and their ‘Leadership Teams’ are obsessed with progress and standards to the point where children become merely statistics on a page, their personal needs and goals ignored and unprovided for in the relentless drive to secure the magic 100% A*-C to guarantee the best possible position in the league tables. In trying to make schools run like competitive businesses, successive governments have sucked the soul out of education and launched children on an endless conveyor belt of formulaic lessons and relentless testing, none of which actually has their benefit at heart.

I could go on for pages and pages about the incompetence, inflexibility, fear and lack of any creativity or compassion that is rife in our education system, but it would do no real good, so I won’t. To combat my frustration, every day I make a point of staging some sort of protest against the narrow minded and illogical policies enforced upon me by the government. Whether that be something as small as laughing in the face of the three part lesson plan advised by Ofsted and having my students sit on the carpet while we just enjoy reading a book for an hour, with no ‘learning objective’ other than to have a lovely time, or as big as refusing to make my borderline students retake elements of their GCSE coursework because I don’t want them to be made to feel inferior just so that the school can boost its place in the league tables. I am trying, in my own way, to form a resistance. But I know that will never be enough to bring about real change, which is what is really needed. Something has got to give, and soon. Teachers need to be willing to put their heads above the parapet and refuse to give in to bullying. We don’t tolerate it in our classrooms, so why should we tolerate it from our government?

The children we teach are not pawns in an arrogant, egocentric man’s ideological games. Education is not a business to be profited from. There is no such thing as an ‘average’ child who can be pitted against an arbitrary measure of ‘success’. Schools should be places where children are equipped for the real world. They should be free to learn what interests them without the constant pressure of testing and categorising and labelling. The reason why so many children don’t enjoy school or do ‘badly’ in exams is because they are being asked from such a young age to conform to a system that is tailored to an ideal and not a reality. The reason why so many teachers are angry and demotivated is exactly the same. For example, I was once marked down in a lesson observation from an otherwise perfect (my observer’s words, not mine!) lesson to ‘just’ a good lesson because some of my students were talking about their personal lives during an activity. They were completing the activity in the required time to the required standard, and while doing so were having a bit of a chat. It would be entirely unnatural to expect a 15 year old to do anything otherwise, and as long as work is being done, I don’t mind a bit of off topic chatter. However, my observer was sticking to the rules – off topic chat is not allowed. Even if they’ve done their work.  Because obviously we are in the business of producing conformist robots who tick boxes, not interesting, creative, thoughtful and curious human beings who have minds of their own.

I want to work myself into a position where I can stomp all of this game playing into the ground and bring about real change. I want to see schools become places of fun and creativity, where children are allowed the freedom to find out who they are and what they’re interested in within an environment that embraces them as an individual and does not try to force them into a box. I want to see teachers trusted to do their jobs as they see fit, and respected as the highly educated, passionate, dedicated and hard working professionals they are. I want to see children leaving school with an education they can actually use in the real world, rather than a clutch of pointless exam grades that don’t teach them anything beyond how to regurgitate facts and follow rules. I want to see a Royal College of Teaching that oversees the teaching profession, not the government. I want an end to armchair teacher politicians dictating the way our schools are run for their own profit, and I want to see a profession that governs and regulates itself, overseen by highly experienced and qualified fellow professionals who understand what it’s truly like to work in a classroom. I believe it can happen. We’ll see what I can do.

44 comments

  1. I taught year 6 last year for the first time and it was so revealing. The amount of exam prep that is required for 10 year olds, the focus on target grades etc. Primary education should be about more than a SATs level.

    1. Isn’t it awful? And the SATs mean nothing when they get to secondary school because the skills required of them are so different and many start their new adventure at ‘big’ school feeling like a failure as a result. I hate it!

  2. So well written. I think we parents have a role to play too. We need to embrace and participate at the schools in our communities. We need to trust the teachers that we speak to and the attitudes of the kids at the school, rather than the tables that we are presented with. And we need to stop thinking that flocking to overpriced houses near to ‘Outstanding’ schools will really and truly benefit our family and society as a whole.

    1. Yes, you’re so right. Parents have succumbed to the myth of the Ofsted ‘outstanding’ school, which basically means a school that ticks the right boxes. There is so much more to a good education than the number of passes at GCSE a school gets and whether it is adept at jumping through the latest government hoops. I think parents and communities at large need to become more involved in their local schools to understand what actually happens in classrooms and feel more empowered to participate in the educational experience. I also think schools need to listen to their pupils more and form the kind of experience they want rather than the kind of experience they think they should have…but that’s another issue!

  3. Wow, Rachel. Very nicely put. The problem here in Spain is even more serious, but what needs to be changed is basically the same. I have hope for the British education system, because at least in the UK individuals with ideas of their own are still welcomed in many sectors of society.

  4. Well said! I love your blog, have discovered lots of lovely books through your recommendations, and have enjoyed reading about your progress as a teacher. As a parent of two (age 8 & 12) it’s been interesting to read a teacher’s perspective and it has given me a greater understanding of your role. I often feel dismayed by a system that set on taking all the joy and wonder out of learning, and I had every sympathy with the teachers who were on strike last week. I hope you never become too disheartened by all of the negatives and manage to hang on to your passion. Our children really need inspirational teachers like you. Good luck.

    1. Thank you Catherine! What lovely things to say. I am glad I have helped you to see how things are from the other side of the fence. I won’t be giving up – I love what I do and I believe wholeheartedly that passionate people can bring about change if they really put their minds to it!

  5. I 100% agree.

    I am a tutor at a Russell Group university. Each year I am faced with a new intake of students, most of whom are driven by learning the appropriate ‘answers’ for the sake of passing end-of-year exams, rather than exploring and absorbing their chosen discipline. And it’s no wonder! Most classrooms are now overshadowed by league tables and performance charts, rather than discovery and inspiration.

    Of course you are right, education policy and regulation desperately needs rethinking. Until then, I like your approach; I hope more teachers follow suit.

    1. It’s sad, isn’t it? So many have no ability or willingness to think independently, because they’re worried they won’t get the right marks if they deviate from the markscheme’s prescriptive answers. I can imagine that it’s much the same for you as it is for us in Year 7 – so many kids completely unable to adapt to the demands of secondary school because they’ve never been taught to make their own decisions and think for themselves thanks to the prescriptive and pressured demands of the ‘one size fits all’ national curriculum.

  6. Passionate and eloquent – bravo. Maybe one way to help a little would be to get this published in a national newspaper, as a letter to the editor, or editorial if you know anyone who can help make that happen?

  7. Exactly the same thing is happening in U.S. school systems. The teachers have no time to teach because they are testing or getting training to administer the tests. Salary is now based on some strange rubrik (designed by someone who obviously never taught in a classroom) that grades teachers highly effective, effective or not effective. Lists of common core standards that must be met are so numerous that there is no time for creativity in dealing with the subject matter leaving those with different learning abilities out in the cold. It is all very frustrating and not conducive for a student’s learning or overall personal development. Please hang in there, only teachers like you will save our children’s education and future.

    1. It’s awful, isn’t it? I don’t understand why people in power think the best way for people to learn is by stamping on all creativity and independent thought and replacing it with lists of so called ‘required’ information that in reality has little practical purpose. Thank you – I’ll do my best to hang on and do something about it!

  8. BRAVO. Sad to say that teaching in the USA is similar. Our politicians want to blame student’s poor performance on teachers. According to administration and politicians every child can be a genius if only the teacher ticks all the right boxes. As you said,methods and standards change constantly. Let’s hire good teachers and let them teach. Let’s help every child reach their potential…. Whatever that may be.

    1. Isn’t it dreadful that children have become a ‘performance measurement tool’ for teachers’ professional development? If you browbeat your students into getting As, you’re brilliant! If your kids have a good time and feel confident in themselves but don’t quite manage to reach the arbitrary gold standard of an A, then you’re a failure and need to be sacked. It’s disgusting and it makes me so angry!

  9. As a child of Blair who left school for university when Labour were still in government, I don’t think the state of education at any point in the last 20 years is something to be proud of. Gove is no more ideological that Labour were. The Labour that decided that dragging everyone down to a common denominator would actually improve things were, in many ways, more insidious. But we are where we are. Almost bottom of the OECD table with kids unable to read, write or count. I don’t think teachers should be proud of the status quo either. They should perhaps spend less time moaning at the government and look at themselves a little bit more. Gove doesn’t send 16 year olds out into the world unable to read despite having spent twelve years at school.

    1. I don’t think it’s the government’s place to become involved in education, because they never have people in charge of education who actually know what it’s like to teach. I can think of no other profession who is ruled over by non specialists in the way teaching is. Every government experiments with education as if it were a game; it’s not, it’s children’s lives. And this is why so many children can’t read, write or add up – not because of poor teachers, necessarily, but because of rushed through and ill thought out ‘initiatives’ that force teachers to teach topics in specific ways that often are not the best way for children to learn but which suit a particular government agenda. And you can’t disregard them, because if you don’t use them, you get failed on your lesson observations. With all due respect, unless you’re in a classroom, you can’t possibly understand the pressure we’re under to teach a set amount of topics in a set way within a very short time scale. I have to get through eight different mandatory topics with each of my KS3 classes in a year – though I have several students in my Year 7 class whose basic literacy is terrible, I have no time to teach it to them because if I do, I’ll be a half term behind on the syllabus. That means they have to do the best they can with the differentiation I give them, and any lunchtimes I can give up to give them extra coaching, because the national curriculum provides no space or time for children who are ‘behind’ to catch up. Everyone should be at a particular stage by a particular time, and if you’re not – then tough luck. Until schools are allowed to make learning child centred and individualised, and teach children according to their abilities and learning styles rather than in a homogenous mass organised arbitrarily by age group, within which there are huge variations of intelligence, enthusiasm, interests, etc then universal literacy and numeracy by a certain age will never be achieved. You also have to realise that only so much can be done in school, and the majority of children who are illiterate come from homes where there are no books and little social interaction. Teachers can’t work miracles.

      1. The NHS has been equally (and to much more dangerous effect) mismanaged by ignorant ‘professionals’ who have no medical training or background. It isn’t just schools in the sort of mess.

        I don’t think senior schools are to blame for the terrible standards of basic education. It’s the primaries. Equally literacy is at it’s lowest level for years but parenting hasn’t suddenly got a lot worse. My grandparents, who’s parents weren’t interested in the slightest in teaching them to read, could do so by age 5. (In schools that had roofs missing thanks to the Blitz.)

        I don’t doubt that constant bureaucracy and lack of autonomy hinders teaching. However, I resent, on behalf of many other professions) the attitude of some teachers that their life is so hard and that they work so many hours. Try being a nurse or a consultant. Or the plethora of other jobs which get no thanks, constant interference, terrible pay and long hours. (With only five weeks holiday at best.) They don’t strike, they don’t constantly moan and they often take responsibility for the failures (rightly or wrongly). Teachers seem only to blame everyone else. I have very little sympathy for what is a relatively well-payed, well-resourced job.

      2. Hmmm. I don’t think I can really respond to you without becoming defensive and/or angry, so I’m just going to say that I’m sorry that you feel this way, and I hope that instead of developing resentment and relying on personal experience/stereotypes to judge teachers, that you will attempt to read and understand a bit more about the conditions Gove has imposed upon the profession and what (perfectly justifiable) issues we take umbrage with. Having long holidays and being paid more than minimum wage doesn’t mean you should have to put up and shut up with increasingly unreasonable and nonsensical working conditions.

    2. I enjoy your book reviews but I have to say I completely agree with Jenny, I still don’t see why Gove is singled out for particular vitriol when this has been a problem for years. I also agree re nurses and the plethora of other professions who just get on with it, all year round.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Emily. Again, this is where I think the contrast between people who are and aren’t in the classroom comes to the fore again. Most members of the public have no idea how things have changed in the education system since Gove came to power and how insidious his changes are. The pushing of the academy and free schools movement has taken many schools out of LEA control, allowing them to basically make up their own working conditions. They are allowed to hire unqualified teachers – which completely undermines the teaching profession – and they have introduced a ‘performance related pay’ system that punishes teachers who don’t get 100% of their students their target grades, despite there being so many variables within a student’s life that will impact on their performance in school. We are expected to work increasingly longer hours for less pay and the curriculum we’re expected to teach is being tinkered with every few months so we’re constantly having to change what we’ve planned. No, I’m not fighting to save lives with no money in an understaffed A&E department, but that doesn’t absolve my right to stand up and say things could and should be better. I am not a whinger and I DO just get on it with it, all year round. I don’t understand why it’s considered to be a crime to dare to speak out about bad practice and protest against unjust working conditions, regardless of how ‘well off’ you are compared to other people. The problems people face are relative to their situation. I’m sorry you feel so negatively about teachers; it makes me so sad that so few people fully understand or care about the way our children are being educated and the way the people who teach them are treated.

  10. Rachel, I thought we, here in the States, were the only country dealing with these issues. For a long time now, years, I have railed against the impact of the current No Child Left Behind Act, fearing that all it will succeed in doing is generate a nation of children who know how to take tests, rather than a nation of learners. You put it well when you say that these intrusions into learning have “sucked the soul out of education and launched children on an endless conveyor belt of formulaic lessons and relentless testing, none of which actually has their benefit at heart.”

    It is teachers, like you, who give me hope in the future. Of course, you need to work within the confines of what you are given, but, your self-initiative to think outside of the box and your love of teaching, children, and learning will carry you through.

    By-the-way, I don’t think of you as being naive at all and I enjoy all your teaching posts.

    1. Thank you, Penny – it is so sad that children are being treated in this way and I hope that my generation of teachers will rise up and do something about it rather than further contributing towards the corporate-isation of education.

  11. I was talking to an Ofsted inspector once who told me that Governments put their social policy in place through their education policies which is why we are subjected to so much change. I am a Headteacher I want my school to be creative and meet the needs of all but the way learners are measured puts everyone under pressure. The pace of change for primaries is phenomenal and we have no time to embed anything once it is in place before we are off on more changes. I was very sympathetic to staff who did strike and can understand that they have concerns about the future of teaching and their part in it. .

    1. It’s horrible, isn’t it? I wish more headteachers could make a stand without then getting chucked out of their jobs. I hate the constant assessment and I feel that I am not doing the best for my students because of it. We need a new breed of schools altogether!

  12. I have to support Rachel’s comments in response to Jenny. Teaching is adequately, but certainly not well paid. It may be half term, but for many of us that means a week marking and preparing,working from home. We arrive at 8am, leave at 6pm and struggle to make a cup of tea or run to the loo during the day. Teachers do this because they want to do the very best they can for their pupils. Ask any teacher, and I’m sure you will find many would give up some if their holidays in exchange for their weekends and being allowed to choose when they take their holidays. Being a teacher is exhausting, it’s draining too at times, but don’t forget the students too need time to relax, enjoy their childhoods and learn in other environments ( game of cookers anyone?). I agree standards are not where I would like them to be but to make a generalisation parents and politicians expect miracles, not every child is going to be a genius, not matter how fabulous I am – or not, yet there is little provision for them. We hear a lot about personalised learning but in a gcse class of 30 pupils with target grades A*-G it’s very difficult to achieve success for all. (Don’t forget, if your child meets his target grade, I have failed, he should have exceeded it). A lot of parents are not interested in doing anything to help, all a child’s education is supposed to happen at school, yet they have 25 hours of lessons a week, education cannot all be down to teachers. Parenting, and parenting expectations have changed dramatically over the last 20 years but that’s a rant for another day! My sister work for the NHS so I know there are enormous funding and moral issues there too. It’s not easy to strike and certainly isn’t something that is done lightly, as to the constantly moaning, I might disagree with that too(look at any newspaper on any day, teacher bashing has become a national sport). Perhaps it would be more helpful if NHS employees and those of us in education, came together as a united front, rather than trying to outdo each other with claims of who is most hard done by! It must be boring for those who have chosen not to enter either profession. But I think most government employees now fail to achieve the respect and recognition they deserve.

  13. Penny is spot on about the No Child Left Behind initiative. Now we are involved in a “core curriculum” program. I have an uncomfortable feeling about it too. One of the last years that I was teaching, I was doing a small unit on the U.S. Constitution for Constitution day which is in the middle of September. The children were engaged and involved while we did Readers’ Theater and other projects to make history come alive. The principal stuck her head in my door and said, “That’s ok, but don’t waste too much time on it you have testing coming up, you know.” State testing was not until late March. We had plenty of time. I felt like I was being chastised for making things interesting for the students. Government officials who have no experience in education should not be making all of the decisions. I feel your frustration.

    1. It’s horrible, isn’t it? Your hands are tied at every corner. I don’t understand why governments think that restricting the knowledge children gain is of benefit to them. It’s so frustrating.

  14. I’ve been reading a long time but rarely comment – just thought I’d say I totally agree. I work in a different part of the public sector and it’s the same there – dictated to by a government who have no knowledge or experience of doing the job or how things work in the real world. Well done for speaking out about it. More people need to, to counter the govt-controlled press vision of things.

    1. Thanks Alice. I appreciate your support. I know that teachers aren’t the only ones suffering and I think that all government employees should feel they have a forum to stand up and speak out about the way they are being treated. Workers unite!

  15. There have been some major teacher (and student-supported) strikes in Spain in the recent weeks and I fully support them. But we are too afraid to fight! My classmates said they’d come to lessons anyway because some teachers were attending and they didn’t want to go without taking their notes. An anger got into my stomach and left me revolted all day. I don’t understand how students do not support teachers, but what gets me mad and angry is that teachers don’t support a strike that fights for their rights and the bettering of their social conditions. Everything is… too complex.

    All my support to you and your students.

      1. Thanks. Same to you. We will finally be a civilised civilisation once we see education- and not war – as a top priority.

  16. I am also an English teacher and I’m afraid your comments come across as politically blinkered. I believe that doing my best for pupils involves NOT striking, particularly when the school is in a deprived area where most can only dream of a public sector pension. Some of your views of education come across as very middle class. The most disadvantaged children aren’t best served by hippy notions of finding themselves through education. Exam passes in maths and English are what make the difference for them.

  17. Jane, I’m afraid you’ve missed my point entirely.

    I don’t doubt that ‘finding yourself through education’ is a hippy notion. I am happy to admit that I have an idealistic view of life. However, I don’t see how putting children on a factory line to get them their ‘exam passes’ does them any good in the long run. Of course getting those passes will get them to college and hopefully into a job – all good things – but will it expose them to all of the possibilities of the world available to them? No. And for those disadvantaged children, school is the only place where they would be likely to get that exposure. Denying them that because they are ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘exam passes’ are all they need for the limited lives society condemns them to is an attitude I can’t agree with.

    You assume that I am middle class. What you don’t realise is that I am a working class kid whose entire family grew up on a council estate. My life is inordinately different to those of my cousins because my parents fought for me to get the education they never had. My cousins are all wonderful, interesting, lovely, intelligent people – but they are barred from the opportunities I have because no one ever thought they were worth giving them to. That is why I feel as I do about the importance of education.

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