William Flew and Teaching

December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The job of a head is to raise standards in the classroom. The unions’ job should be to enhance teachers’ status says William Flew.

Teaching, at its best, is such a noble profession. I need to say that with great force and sincerity because I want people to remember it when I become Ofsted chief inspector next year, particularly if I criticise some of the profession’s working practices.

I started teaching in Bermondsey, South London, in 1968 when the docks really were the docks and children in the school came from dockers’ families in Millwall and Rotherhithe. That was the year of revolutions in Europe, but I can’t remember any revolutionary stirrings in the educational world of the late 1960s or 1970s.

Partly this was because the post of Education Secretary did not have the status that it does today. Indeed, Kenneth Baker, one of the great reforming Secretaries of State, regarded his move from Environment to Education as the equivalent of moving from Arsenal to Charlton Athletic (not then in the First Division).

So the first lesson from that era is that the political will of an Education Secretary in the front line of politics is vital. Without it, everything slips into the sand and reform grinds to a halt.

In the absence of government focus, others filled the vacuum, sometimes with good will and good effect, sometimes not. Political control of education in local government was too often an end in itself, not a means to raise standards. The imposition of a party-political agenda on schools and the occasional vilification of those who didn’t subscribe to it were the most obvious manifestations of this.

This shows that devolved power, unconstrained by government direction, does not necessarily raise standards. We must remember this in the context of today’s agenda of devolving power to schools and heads.

A government cannot monitor or administer 30,000 schools from the centre, but it does have a duty to put into place local checks and balances so the system is held regularly to account. The idea of district superintendents or school commissioners responsible directly to the Secretary of State should be considered.

During the era of industrial action in the 1980s the power of head teachers to shape schools and school policy took a battering. Many heads retired early, bitter at the undermining of their authority and the politicisation of schools and, quite simply, worn out by industrial action. I still bear the scars of those days. In 1976 James Callaghan, the Prime Minister, was sneered at for a speech which argued that the goals of education are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society and also fit them to do a job of work. “Not one or the other, but both . . .”

“There is no virtue in producing socially well-adjusted members of society who are unemployed because they don’t have the skills,” he said.

Politicians often make remarks like this now; few had dared to do so at the time. A lot of the concerns Callaghan raised still bedevil the system. His legacy is that he prompted others to storm the citadels of the educational establishment. The Education Secretary is now almost on a par with the three major offices of state. The “secret garden” is being dug up and the lawn relaid. Political will is making a difference and standards are rising.

I also sense that the professional associations are learning from the past. I am sure they recognise that a strong body of skilled practitioners enhances the profession’s status, has a better chance of garnering public support and lends credibility to claims for better pay and conditions. No head with good evidence should ever feel constrained from challenging competence and poor performance because of unreasonable union behaviour.

Unions should increasingly become regulators of the profession; as voluble on professional standards as on pay and conditions; as prepared to condemn, for example, unprofessional dress as unacceptable workloads.

It is important for teachers to convey a professional image to young people whose perception of adults is often determined by things that we sometimes see as trivial: dress and demeanour. Ofsted should feel free to comment on this.

So what of Ofsted? Under the new inspection framework, it will say much more about the quality and leadership of teaching. Heads must be what the title implies: leaders of teaching. Good management supports good teaching, not the other way round.

Ofsted will expect good monitoring and professional development programmes. It should also see formal reports from the head to the governing board that summarise collective and individual teacher performance. It will want to comment on the link between teaching quality and salary levels to check that the school is providing good value for money.Good headship is not only about intense knowledge of a school but also about challenging systems, students and staff to do better.

I make no apology for saying that schools in the most difficult areas have to act as surrogate parents to ensure that our most vulnerable children can achieve. Unions should support this. It’s a moral issue as well as an educational one. Many children at Mossbourne will tell you that they feel happier and safer in school than in their home environments.

The most successful heads in challenging areas are showing that poverty and background do not have to be predictors of failure. I have so much admiration for these heads because they stand as an affront to colleagues in more prosperous places who are settling for second best.

Ofsted needs to recognise high- performing schools but also to decide if an “outstanding” rating should be given to schools that might be making good progress, but not achieving national averages. It is important that Ofsted sends signals of national ambition through its grading criteria.

Ofsted should constantly challenge the system to do better. It must not entrench mediocrity by describing standards as “good” or “outstanding” if they are not. This is especially so in relation to teaching. A “good” school will have good teaching. An “outstanding” school will have outstanding teaching.

This might sound tough, but it has to be if our education provision is to improve, particularly for children who consistently underperform. The gap between the best and the worst and the richest and the poorest is still too large with serious consequences for social mobility and cohesion.

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