Hidden Variables 1

I have been mulling over my experiences on the supply-teaching circuit over the last year. My quest – apart from basic survival – was partly existential (can I, at the age of 55, do anything useful in the modern teaching environment?), partly confessional (what could RC or Jesuit education bring to this brave new world of teaching?), and partly investigative (are there significant factors in education which are not considered when rewarding or punishing institutions and individuals – hidden variables).

The answer to the first points to hidden variables. The excellent institution that I ended up working in for the last two terms seemed genuinely appreciative of my services impersonating an English teacher. Several of the students were positive about my classes. Most of the students seem to have made some progress (though by no means all). So the simple answer to my first question was ‘yes’. Nevertheless, being brutally frank, my standards of classroom discipline (the classes I was given included some tricky characters) were not the best and in the course of my time I taught perhaps two or three lessons that OFSTED might have rated ‘good’.   The rest were what used to be satisfactory (and now require improvement) and one or two were disasters.

In order to stay even this much on top of the job, with a light teaching load of 13 – 14 hours per week (out of 25), spread over 4 KS3 classes (so no exam classes) and four days, I found it necessary to work between 40 and 50 hours a week. My colleagues, young, talented, committed and full-time were probably working one-and-a-half to twice that amount of time. They had exam classes as well. Their lessons were formally assessed on the internal inspection regime and were consistently of the highest standard: good or outstanding. From the lessons that I observed myself, this was amply deserved. They were brilliant teachers.

So how to make some sense of this mismatch? How is it that the work of a plodder like moi came to be useful in an otherwise technically top-of-the-range teaching environment?   Let me be clear, the school was deservedly rated outstanding. The commitment to the pupils (some of whom were very challenging) was unwavering. The support systems were excellent. If there is a puzzle here it is one that lies at the heart of the current state system, its model of excellence and the tools which it uses to drive up standards. See what you think about this possible account.

The inspection regime with its remorseless drive towards excellence affects the lives of salaried teachers only. Supply teachers are off the radar. Obviously a supply teacher who is a disaster will not be asked to come back the next day, but those who can get by, keep the more unruly within bounds and get a reasonable amount of quality work out of the majority are not formally monitored like the permanent staff.

In the benign version of an inspection regime, we find a collaborative system for professional development, enabling individuals to raise their game and serve the students better. In the brutal version we find (to use the sort of language favoured by some politicians and journalists) a tool for weeding out the dross. In both versions, teachers who are genuinely not coping can be given clear reasons to move on. But under the brutal version, people who might once have been considered above-average teachers discover that standards are higher now, and it may be time to go before being pushed. Yet these are just some of those who will find their way back into the game via the supply pool.

Whether the regime in a particular school is benign or brutal, the demands are intense. The requirements of formalized assessment for learning must be fulfilled (I wonder was this exactly what Black and Wiliam envisaged?), there must be measurable outcomes lesson by lesson, an eye must be kept on data – is child x meeting their target level? (more about data elsewhere). All of this together with high quality lessons appropriate to the group ability yet challenging each individual, good use of visuals and technology, the right amount of content (not too much, not too little) according to the scheme of work and excellent behaviour management of some occasionally very difficult young people. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s well done, it works and is wonderful to witness, but it is draining day on day.

Finally, from January onwards there is the exam frenzy of extra classes, including overnight subject-retreats, to drag both the willing and the recalcitrant (or sullenly slumped) over the magic CD border. This is premier league teaching. Not surprising that not all of us can keep up the pace. Nor is it surprising when premier league teachers get injured, even invalided out for a season.

Since 2010 the government has gathered its statistics (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/440577/Text_SFR21-2015.pdf) on schools staffing in November each year. Before 2010 those statistics were gathered in January. This is significant, because, like the premiership season, in the first quarter of the academic year, when all are still fresh, the squad is nearer full strength. However, things can change. You may have a full staff on the 3rd of November. But by the 3rd of January you might well be down one or two. I replaced a schools-direct candidate who fell by the wayside at the beginning of November but that statistic will not show in either 2014 or 2015. Nor was I the only late signing. Multiply that across the system.

However, let’s explore the November figures a little more. You will probably be better at reading statistics than me, but the tables for secondary schools for 2002 – 2015 seem to suggest that the number of temporary contracts (people like me?) at the start of the year has been increasing since 2010. This is in spite of the aggressive and effective recruitment of bright young graduates into some specific difficult areas (Teach First had 186 candidates in 2003, 996 in 2012; my school readily recruited schools direct candidates). However, the figure of 1300 secondary teachers on temporary contracts last September does seem to dovetail neatly with the shortfall in recruitment to training programmes in 2013 and 2014 (539 and 1352 respectively – presumably including PGCE). Though this amounts to only 0.8% of the teaching body, which probably means about 0.6 of a teacher per school, it highlights a flaw in the premiership recruitment programme. There aren’t enough players – or at least not enough players prepared to work under these conditions for this money (see the Economist article and my comments below).

But the average school is an abstraction. What the statistics do not show, of course, is how those 1300 are distributed (it will not be 0.6 teachers per school), nor what it is like being one of the schools that is struggling to recruit staff. The important details that affect the life of real schools are invisible in the statistics. Why is it so difficult to recruit in this area? Who has resigned at Christmas or become long-term sick? Why have they got sick? Is it sheer misfortune, or is it work-related? What sort of a gap do they leave in the running of the school? What classes will spiral out of control unless properly managed and taught?

Working as a day-to-day supply teacher (presumably the cheapest sort) it is interesting to feel the atmosphere amongst students and staff of different establishments, ranging from focused, purposeful and orderly to borderline anarchic. It is also interesting to note that even beautifully equipped academies can fall in the latter category.

Then there is the life-cycle of an individual school, which is both affected by and affects its financial resources. Is it on an upswing, a new educational magnet, recruiting more students with parents committed to their education, able to attract talented and ambitious teachers? Is it cruising, with a stable trusted staff and a stable body of parents who trust the institution, riding on a good or outstanding OFSTED inspection? Is it on the frightening downward spiral, where parental confidence is eroded, numbers fall, finances become difficult, special measures lurk around the corner?

Whichever phase an individual school may be in, if they lose a premiership teacher – or a trainee premiership teacher – in the course of a year (and this will happen within the system to any quality of school and for a variety of reasons) it may well find the only people left on the bench are the championship players (to continue – if not belabour – the metaphor) who can at least work the full 90 minutes professionally, and keep the team in the game. Hence the paradox in the system: the ever-increasing pressure to perform to an ever-more-demanding standard on salaried teachers, matched by the increasing need for competent professionals (who do not necessarily meet those standards) to fill the gaps when the salaried move on, move out or go down.

And this leads to a further question: if a satisfactory/’requires improvement’ teacher can nevertheless do a recognizably useful job, what does that say about the criteria of judgment? Could it be this: the variables highlighted by the current inspection regime, important though they may be, are not the only significant ones in the teaching process. There are perhaps hidden variables (disregarded or minimalised within the current system) that also contribute to good outcomes.  Did you see that thought-provoking BBC series on the Chinese school experiment?  More anon.

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