For all the arguments about education policy, nothing quite brings home the importance of teaching as when you are standing in an exam hall watching as the students you have cared for, stressed about, worried with, and argued over now sit – silently – face down in their papers, writing squiggles on a page that could make a substantial difference to the rest of their lives. And you are hopeless to change anything currently in their minds. You hope that what, and how, you have taught is enough. Governments can change the curriculum, change everyone into ‘academies’, change pay – but without changes that make a difference to the learning in classrooms, this pinnacle of the teaching year still feels achingly similar.
But!, instead of lamenting, here are three simple ‘quick wins’ a government could bring in that might actually improve teaching and learning, rather than just giving us all an extra headache.
1.Require Teaching Schools to share their schemes of work. When schools such as Mossbourne are regularly touted in the press for being unbelievably good it still seems odd that we have no idea what happens in their classrooms. Lesson planning and resourcing are one of the most time-consuming parts of a teacher’s existence, and while no-one should take lessons wholesale without adapting for their own students, if brilliant learning is being achieved surely it makes sense that we know how? If the plans teachers used (often called ‘schemes of work’) were publicly available teachers across the country could discuss, figure out why they’re brilliant, replicate, adapt. And given that the government so often points to “Teaching Schools” as the policy that has raised standards, why not make sharing schemes a requirement of the status? Seems a no-brainer to me.
2.Publish a monthly selection of Ofsted observation notes. There is a current fear (and some evidence) that Ofsted say they are not looking for “one lesson type” yet really they are. Hence, leaders try second-guessing Ofsted and some will decree what lessons must include justifying it with: “You have to teach this way, Ofsted say so”. Armed with little knowledge of Ofsted’s clandestine wants, teachers struggle to argue back. So – for the sake of everyone’s sanity – let’s require Ofsted publish, once per month, the observation forms of the most outstanding lessons of the previous period. Permission could be sought beforehand – I’m certain most teachers given a Grade 1 would be thrilled to have their observations shared.
If Ofsted really don’t mind how lessons are taught, we should see a variety of different lessons with explanations of what made the difference. Furthermore, the plans would give teachers another thing to discuss and analyse. I’d love to sit around with a group of teachers once a month and analyse these documents for trends and see what they suggest for changing practices. Imagine the Twitter chats such data would provoke!
3.Provide 1:1 tutoring for all staff in ‘requires improvement’ schools. Being an academy or free schools isn’t stopping schools from being ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘requiring improvement’ (who knew?!). But as Becky Francis points out in the report (Un)Satisfactory?, schools with many disadvantaged pupils will more often struggle to get out of the Grade ¾ quagmire. “Takeover” by an academy won’t inevitably solve that given that academisation itself doesn’t change the classroom. A more direct approach would be providing every teacher in a high-poverty ‘requires improvement’ school with 1:1 coaching by an external mentor. Akin to the sort of training TeachFirsters receive during the programme, teachers would have regular observations (approximately 3 per term) and regular feedback. This training could run alongside regular discussion sessions looking at schemes of work from Teaching Schools (idea #1) and the best Ofsted lessons (idea #2).
The first two ideas barely cost anything – some webspace and co-ordination. The third one could be costly, but likely less costly than curriculum reshuffling, or academisation, and it could make a direct impact in places that need it rather than other current policies which are hit-and-miss.
No doubt people will point out that these ideas make teaching schools or Ofsted vulnerable to criticism. Well, diddums. If we’re ever going to improve classroom practice we must get over our squeamishness about discussing classroom practice. Also, we don’t have to name the teaching school or inspectors involved. The published data simply become case examples – as seen in medicine, law, nursing – and provide us with things we can discuss: do we agree with them, or not, and why. But however uncomfortable it might be to start with (and the Mr Men debacle suggests it will be), if it would nevertheless help students do even better as they sit in those exam halls, white-faced and determined, then I think we at least ought to try.