My enthusiasm for Ellie’s article provoked ambivalent responses. Emma Lark and Jacqui Broadhead on the Policy First Facebook page welcomed it whilst @Andy__Buck and @Teachitso on Twitter were less enthusiastic.
So why did I welcome it with such enthusiasm when teacher quality is such a pillar of so much of LKM’s work?
Well let me state that I absolutely do continue to believe that recruiting, developing and keeping outstanding teachers should be our number one priority in school improvement, however, that should not mean we forget everything else. Here are my question marks:
1. Is it ok for poor kids to be educated in dreadful schools so long as they have outstanding teachers?
It would be inexcusable for policy makers to rest easy whilst poor pupils continue to be educated in cramped, damp schools, lacking in facilities and with ceilings caving in (none of this is an exaggeration) whilst others are taught in beautiful country estates with 16 rugby pitches, on the grounds that “yes, but they had some very good teachers”.
2. Is it ok for teachers to teach in dreadful schools?
I don’t believe it is. It might be an appropriate challenge for a few highly resilient teachers on a mission for a limited time but should we expect it of all teachers in the long term? We can hardly expect them as mothers and fathers with their own families to go home to spend their day battling extreme adversity just because they’re such messianic saints, regardless of the fall out in their family life.
3. Is filling dreadful schools with fantastic teachers a system level solution?
The obvious reply to my first two points is that if we fill the most challenging schools with outstanding/transformative teachers then they will no longer be dreadful. Yes, if all the teachers were outstanding then indeed the schools would improve. However, it is unrealistic to think that one can simply re-populate each of the country’s worst settings with 100% transformative teachers without doing anything else to the school first. Improving the environment, putting good leadership into place and establishing rule of law are also important steps to success.
4. Are these transformative teachers doing the best they can?
As Jacqui Broadhead says in her Policy First comment , in the worst settings, even turning up is enough to have a relative impact. A transformative teacher doing “the best I can” in such a setting can therefore have a huge impact but just imagine the impact one of these teachers could have when supported by strong leadership, effective pastoral support and good facilities.
5. What about retention?
In the 6 Predictable Failures of Free Schools Laura talked about high turn-over in American Charter schools which expect long hours and utter dedication from their teachers. Whilst certain schools operating in a deficit environment and doing something very particular might be justified in operating in this way, are schools like this really a replicable, sustainable way of managing education on a system level?
6. What is a reasonable expectation?
Yes transformative teachers can achieve magnificent results against the odds but where does the limit lie in what is reasonable? I have sat at dinner with friends only for the meal to be interrupted by a pupil ringing for help with their English homework. Again, for a few teachers, for a limited period of time and in certain settings this might be some people’s choice but should we hold it up as an example for a national education policy? There is a point when talk about work-life balance stops because there is no life left to talk about. I frown at it when bankers, consultants and taxi drivers find themselves reaching that point. I would hate to see it as accepted practice in education either.
What I’m talking about here is a level beyond just being an outstanding teacher in a challenging school. I am talking about the pinnacle of utterly dedicated transformative teachers working in the most extreme scenarios. Not everyone has to be like this. It is too much to expect. Anyway, if that’s what it takes to achieve success then something must be going very wrong more widely in society. I certainly don’t think it’s the basis of Finland’s success.
If we could ensure that leadership was strong and effective enough to create environments that provide decent working conditions and some stability, order and structure and we used recruitment and continuing professional development to ensure that all teachers were either good or outstanding then it would make a huge difference without demanding total sacrifice from the teachers. A fellow teacher and I once pondered what would happen if all teachers were good. Not ‘outstanding’, just ‘good’. Of course I want everyone to be ‘outstanding’ but I bet 100% ‘good’ would lead to some pretty impressive changes too.
So there are things other than teacher quality which matter after all. Yes, our very top teachers can help pupils to excel against even the worst odds, but a real, scalable and sustainable solution demands a little bit more than that.
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