“Let’s have a College of Teaching.” When I hear words to this effect from the mouths of PM and his trusty sidekick, EdSec, I imagine them delivered in the voice of Mrs Merton heralding the start of a heated debate. The palpable delight in their doing-somethingness is almost endearing.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t there a College of Teachers some time back? I certainly remember a head teacher for whom I worked enrolling all of his staff onto one of its courses, before telling them he’d done so. And then claiming attached funding that he had no intention of spending on the designated areas. And then terminating our enrolments – again, without letting us know – once he realised that no extra moolah would be forthcoming as everyone else had tried to claim it as well. Oh, how we laughed!
In fact, doesn’t the College of Teachers still exist as an online entity, offering qualifications and publications? I’ve certainly seen ‘FCollT’ lurking among the head teacher’s post-nominals at more than one school. Unless his/her life is even more of a lava lamp of debauchery than I already imagine, I assume it doesn’t stand for ‘frilly collar and tux’.
The establishment of a college of teaching is Nicky Morgan’s and David Laws’ Big Idea along with the, almost tautological, Workload Challenge – both, key parts of the government’s strategy to engage with the teachers Ms Morgan describes as “heroes”. Michael Gove liked that word too. He applied it to chaps and chapels who’d selflessly dedicated themselves to improving the lot of the deprivedinnercitynotlikeus child. And who, rather often, ended up in the news for, hmm let’s see, paying themselves massive salaries, awarding their own companies lucrative contracts and cheating at exams. Still, never mind the quality; just feel that width.
So, it appears that some attempt is being made to begin a dialogue between the DfE and the rank-and-file of the profession. If you are a teacher, this may be hard to envisage, so infrequent have such interactions been. Politicians have, generally, tended to commune with sponsors and head teachers only. Whether as a simplistic efficiency measure, or on account of the more fragrant vapours that undoubtedly emanate from those who are no longer groundlings, I’m not sure. What I do know is that a misguided belief has prevailed, according to which a conversation with a head is tantamount to a conversation with an entire school and, by extension, a profession. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
For, despite occupying the same buildings and, supposedly, working for the same end result, there can be much – possibly more – that divides rather than unites the classroom teacher and the head. One principal under whom I worked admitted as much: in his view, all of the senior team would have been wise to forego membership of teaching unions and join an organisation for school leaders only, on the grounds that the interests of the parties were fundamentally different. A rare moment of honesty, I thought – especially as the description of the staff as ‘plebs’ fell from his mouth.
Those removed from the classroom seem to find it much easier to rationalise away a number of issues that regularly exercise teachers. Issues like whether we should be encouraging independent, critical thinking; whether we are educating our children to the best of our abilities if we allow them to be taught by non-specialists who are only a page ahead of their charges in subject knowledge; whether students should be held to account over their conduct and, possibly, allowed to achieve less than a ‘C’ grade if they have done no work this side of forever. For the teacher, the bottom line is likely to be what is best for the student – in the long run, even if it hurts a little and especially if the student is ambling about miles away from his/her best interests. Actually, let’s be frank here: at the risk of portraying teachers as a collective case of chronic Munchausen’s, our ultimate concern is the welfare of society.
Whereas the bottom line for a head teacher is, often, a simpler and more immediate chain of concerns: appearing to meet or surpass floor targets – by hook, crook and act of dog, if need be; besting other schools in league tables; appearing to meet this year’s performance management targets; securing another payrise; securing an executive headship; securing the right to do whatsoever with the school budget; managing the budget so that there’s plenty available for fact-finding missions with one’s family and chums to Shanghai, Finland, the Maldives, Harvey Nicks and e-bay.
I know which of these callings I’d rather was heeded.
Which is why a College of Teaching, if such a thing is to be resurrected, has to honour its name and serve those whose principal professional activity is teaching. Not leading, managing or engaging in that hallucinatory ‘vision thing’ in the warmest office in the commonly-occupied building. No, teaching and its quotidian concomitants. In doing so, the college would be drawing upon a vast reservoir of – too often, untapped – classroom expertise and taking its lead from a body of practitioners amply capable of identifying the kind of valuable pedagogic development it needs, rather than chasing after today’s mythical Ofsted butterfly using a net with gigantic holes. In short, a profession that cares more about being at the top of its game than at the top of a table.
I hope that Morgan’s and Laws’ claimed commitment to raising the profession’s status is evident not only in words but also in actions, which may have to include dismantling some of the structures within which schools and teachers currently operate. Re-establishing education as the extraordinarily important, demanding and privileged field it should be – but emphatically isn’t, at the moment – is far too important a matter to be treated as a partisan affair.
Come what(ever in) May.