I spent yesterday participating in the Sutton Trust’s Best in Class event. This is the sort of event that I really like, it brought together some top academics, policymakers (e.g. Nick Gibb, Barry Sherman) and people who are involved directly in educational practice (ranging from Michael Wilshaw to a number of head teachers).
The event sought to review how effectively the educational system was supporting social mobility and social justice. As Ronald Sultana has noted, social justice can be slippery meaning different things to different people. Given this it was clear that different people in the room were using it in different ways. Nonetheless everyone was united by the idea that no one should be locked out of benefitting from education by an accident of birth.
I think that the Sutton Trust does some really important work. I rely on their research a lot and believe that they are generally a force for good in the education system. However, at times yesterday the debate was framed in ways that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. There was sometimes a bit too much of a tendency to view the education system through a deficit lens, too much enthusiasm for the educational charms of the independent sector and a bit of a tendency to construct things in an either or fashion (how can we get more GOOD teachers and less BAD teachers etc.). On the other hand there was also a willingness to consider a wide range of different perspectives and to acknowledge complexity whilst still trying to maintain some sense that there are pragmatic solutions that can move things forward.
I think that the overriding sense that I walked away with from the day was the idea that we have spent too much time focused on system change (e.g. arguing over academisation) and not nearly enough time and money on improving the human capital ie what teachers, school leaders, careers professionals etc. know and can do. There was a strong recognition that if schools were going to be effective they would need good leaders, managers and teachers. Some of this was discussed in the context of current concerns about a recruitment crisis in teaching, however, most people were arguing that retention was at least as important as recruitment.
The research suggests that teachers get more effective when they have been in the profession for a few years. It also suggests that they need good knowledge, a high degree of professional autonomy and good professional networks. In England many of these things have been seriously eroded or have failed to really develop. The need to refocus on teacher CDP and teacher development should therefore be a serious policy concern. There was also some research that suggested that focusing on CPD and the career development of teachers was likely to be a better strategy to retain people than simply raising pay (not that that is very likely anyway).
The problem with focusing on the development of professionals rather than the changing of structures and the building of plant is that it is invisible and can be constructed as the concern of the teacher rather than the Secretary of State. It is easy for government to say ‘of course teachers should be skilled, they should be investing in their professional development’. However, the way that the education system is currently constructed teachers have precious little time and resource to access training, spend time reading and reflecting or get involved in things like teacher development circles, peer observation and so on. Yet, the evidence seems to suggest that these things are well worth doing, while forcing every school in the country to become an academy has a rather more questionable base in evidence.
All of this chimes well with some of the thinking that I’ve been doing about careers professionalism and particularly about how to develop the professionalism of teachers who lead careers in schools. At the end of the day we need to build school’s capacity to deliver high quality career education and guidance. The only way that we are going to do this is to professionalise staff who work in schools and with schools. If we want to achieve change across all secondary schools in England we are going to have to invest much more heavily in teacher and careers adviser CPD and link careers work more clearly into the career structures of teachers.
So let’s stop reorganising the system for a bit and start spending some money on the people who work within it.