Three things that really matter to teachers

Andrew Old

There is a gap between political debate about education and what teachers experience at the chalkface. Political discussion seems to constantly centre on types of schools, the difficulty level of exams and the influence of teaching unions. However, from my time writing a blog about teaching for seven years I’ve learnt that there are three entirely different issues that teachers want to hear about, but which only occasionally get a political airing.

1.      Behaviour

Teachers can tell you stories of quite hideous abuse, but also persistent defiance. What is euphemistically termed as “low level disruption” actually amounts to being completely prevented from teaching by students calling out or ignoring the teacher.

Politicians will sometimes talk tough, but the reality is that teachers remain dependent on the culture of the school they work in. Many schools have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture where any teacher reporting bad behaviour is blamed for failing to make their lessons interesting enough to keep the students “engaged”.

Schools often find it difficult to permanently remove even the most disruptive student, as choosing not to behave is not seen as a choice for which there should be a consequence. Does a policy of “inclusion” mean requiring the majority of students to have their learning disrupted by a minority, or should there be greater provision of exclusion units or PRUs?

2.      Teaching methods

What politicians often miss is the element of compulsion in how we are expected to teach. Teachers can be observed teaching several times a year, and can expect to be condemned if they spend too long explaining, teaching facts or making students do written work.

If you want a career in teaching you will be expected to make sure your lesson is full of group work, play, conversation and children expressing their own opinions. While this may seem to be just a matter of the culture of some schools, this expectation has also become part of what OFSTED inspectors demand, despite their chief inspector’s claim that there is no required teaching style for inspections. In fact, if teachers were more involved in the debate we could be discussing the abolition, or at the very least the drastic reform of OFSTED so that an organisation that is meant to hold schools accountable would cease to be an example of arbitrary and unaccountable power in itself.

 3.      Management

Schools have become heavy with managers over the last decade. It often seems as if half the teachers in a school are employed to manage the other half. It is not unusual for schools to have departments in which a majority of the teachers have management responsibilities.

Much of management is concerned mainly with producing paperwork, policies and initiatives which achieve very little other than to tie up time that could be spent concentrating on teaching and learning. Teachers frequently complain of their excessive workload, but the workload is very often not to do with teaching but “providing evidence” and compiling data for managers, attending meetings with managers and otherwise dealing with the consequences of working in a bureaucracy.

We should be asking questions about how schools are managed and look to see if a thinner management structure based on giving ordinary teachers support, rather than obstructing them while giving a status boost to the ambitious, could be introduced.

This is the world in which teachers live and it is a world which politicians seem to have very little understanding of. When politicians promise performance-related pay then they are promising greater power for managers to obstruct teachers. When they tighten up rules on exclusions they are ensuring that more teachers are subjected to intolerable behaviour. When they demand better results or tougher exams they are ignoring the pressure on teachers to teach in particular, less effective ways. When they seek to limit the influence of teaching unions then they are helping to ensure an already overwhelming workload can be increased with impunity.

Instead of another round of endless political debate on which type of school structure is best, politicians may want to consider the issues that teachers find themselves caring about the most.

All of the above issues are within the power of government, and all of them have far greater effect on my students’ opportunities to learn than those issues we see politicians and journalists focusing on.

Andrew Old is a blogger and teacher who has worked in several secondary schools. His blog can be found here. 


  1. bt0558

    Although I agree that much of the disfunction found in schools these days should be laid at the door of poor management, I feel that your lack of understanding of the nature of management confuses the issue somewhat.

    Behaviour is an issue in some schools but by no means all. SMT and managers have to power to sort these issues but do not. It doesn’t need political intervention.

    Same with teaching methods although I agree that the Ofsted approach has caused issues.

    I have seen behaviour and results transformed when schools changed to academies, the promotion of professional practice and accountability.

    I have followed your blog for many years and I feel that your view is that these are the 3 key issues. Internet users are often a self selecting group.

    The 3 issues you raise should be resolved by professional managers and professional teachers.

    You have been blogging recently that teachers have been involved as Gove and co. have been listening to the most popular educational blogs. You have a scrapbook lauding your power and influence.

    I see you as a politician just as is gove, you are just have less obvious power and a different agenda for yourself and schools.

    I have been to several schools recently where noone was concerned that any of these 3 issues were a problem for them.

    • paulmartin42

      BT0558 (aka Borrelia turicatae) has recently been to 3 schools in which Behaviour, Management and Teaching methods “noone was concerned that any of these 3 issues were a problem for them”. These, (if they exist, they then need bigging up so all can benefit) are clearly not your bog standard comprehensives or rebranded new academies.

  2. David Walker

    Andrew Old does something to rectify an imbalance between public service as experienced on the ‘front line’ and policy/political debate: his points would probably be paralleled by police officers, social workers, GPs, community nurses and DWP office staff. It’s noteworthy he doesn’t appear to make a distinction between politicians and policy of the left and others perhaps because he could cite, if he wished, dicta from David Blunkett and others about teachers that border on contempt.
    But before he and his fellow professionals can escape their predicament, we need to understand how they’ve got there, and the part played by Labour ministers…starting presumably with Jim Callaghan and his articulation of a sense (emanating from parents as much as their political representatives) that professionalism among schoolteachers had got too cosy, too self-interested.
    Public services professionals, harried and over-burdened, often respond to the manifest failures of New Public Management as visited upon schools, hospitals and police stations by saying ‘trust us’ (ie leave us alone). And some recuperation of trust in professionals has to happen (because the regulation set up when trust is lacking is costly and often dysfunctional). But before that can taken place, we surely need some rebuilding of the structures of professionalism – including codes of ethics, disciplinary bodies and so on. In the case of teaching it’s not rebuilding but new building. We need a College of Teaching, even a Royal College, that isn’t a Gove gimmick in the way the College of Policing is under Theresa May’s thumb.
    But that will require teachers to exercise collective self discipline in way they haven’t in the past – and perhaps threaten the position of the NUT and the other unions. It will also mean Labour education secretaries, Tristram Hunt or whomsoever, to give up the action image of education policy beloved of Blunkett and Gove…

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