Warped.

I have an email from a parent, thanking me for five years’ teaching her child. The grade at G.C.S.E. was not high – but given that the child had significant learning difficulties, as a colleague observed, it probably still represents positive value added. According to the parent, my subject was the only one at school the child had really engaged with, thanks to my teaching.

I have a second email from a pupil in the same class thanking me, as I mentioned previously, for my support when the going got tough. That pupil got an A*.

Unfortunately, an algorithm predicted that the first pupil ‘ought’ to have scored four grades higher (even though the pupil didn’t manage that in any subject), whereas the second pupil simply got what was expected. I submitted both emails as annual review evidence; I cannot be certain they have even been read.

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman reportedly gave a speech this week criticising schools for their obsession with league tables. She rightly pointed out that gaming the system simply to improve schools’ standing is in effect a corruption of the education process. Sean Harford of the same organisation has apparently said that data is a signpost, not a destination.

And yet we continue to be deluged with initiatives, from the College of Teaching down, seemingly intent on furthering ‘research-driven’ teaching. Presumably the research relies heavily on data for its ‘proof’.

I cannot accept that this is anything more than a distortion of the education process – and I have never been able to let my own teaching be driven by such concerns. The emails mentioned above might suggest why. As far as I am concerned, both of those pupils fulfilled their potential and equally important, had an affirming experience along the way.

Data/evidence/research/league tables have nothing to do with how educated young people become; knowing you got an A* may be a validation, but it is not being ‘educated’ per se. No, this obsession is not about pupils at all – but everything about teachers and schools ‘proving’ they have met political requirements. The sheer energy going into this at the moment shows just how narcissistic the education sector has (been forced to?) become.

Educational data simply cannot be impartial: there are too many unknowns involved. But if the system is going to set so much store by them, then it has a profound responsibility to get it right to a very high level of confidence. And if one accepts my concerns, then that it cannot but fail to do.

I will restrict myself to a couple of observations, which are not without personal signficance.

  1. Little heed is paid to the volatility of small data sets. In a class of 25, each child represents a +/- 4% effect on the data. One child’s performance makes a significant difference. Quite apart from the inherent instability, it is not consistent directly to compare the results for a teacher who had, say 75 exam candidates (and hence a less volatility) with one who only had 25.
  2. The breakdown of classes makes a difference. A former colleague had two classes in the same year group. One group scored 100% A*-C; the other scored 25%. Nobody questioned that because the classes were of different ability. And yet my colleague’s average A*-C percentage is lower than the one that got me into trouble with a mixed ability class. It came down to an arbitrary judgement that my result ‘ought’ to have been higher – even though comparison of ‘my’ grades with the same pupils in their other subjects suggests otherwise.

That is not a rigorous use of data, but equally, it is not clear what would be – and this is the reason I have no faith in this approach. Selective use of data thus becomes just another managerial weapon.

And what about the data suggesting that pupils’ results may correlate with their teachers’ state of mental health? Bitter experience makes this plausible for me; it is only on such grounds that I might be prepared to concede some deficiency. But it is hardly something I should be held accountable for, particularly when my working conditions arguably have been the cause to start with. Amanda Spielman may perhaps be thinking similarly – but in my case it is looking increasingly as though I am going to pay for my earlier obduracy with my career.

If statistics are inherently so powerful, then ones for mental health surely ought to be treated seriously and the root cause of the problem addressed. Yet the system seems intent on doing the opposite by just scrapping people when they burn out.

Furthermore, by using such tenuous grounds to make teachers’ lives more difficult, the sector is contributing to its own difficulties by wantonly disposing of experienced staff who, in any wider reading may be doing a perfectly good job.

And that is just warped.

Turning it all around #3: Held to account.

Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Pasi Sahlberg

One so often sees in education the application of extraordinarily blunt instruments to a subtle and intricate process that it’s easy to wonder whether those devising them really have much understanding of that process at all.  Holding professionals to ‘account’ might seem like a perfectly reasonable step within a complex modern society – until one reflects further on both the meaning of the word, and the nature of what is being attempted.

I have no difficulty whatsoever for being held responsible for my actions as a teacher – but therein lies the first nuance: responsibility is accepted, but accountability is imposed. What is more, accountability has a whiff of retribution about it, suggesting no consideration of the circumstances whatsoever, whereas responsibility again is more nuanced, and has positive as well as negative connotations. But what, therefore, am I to make of the advice from a senior manager some years ago, that one should never apologise (to a parent)?

Teaching is not like working on a production line. Unlike machinery, people do not usually submit willingly to direct control – and immature ones especially so. Many of the impacts of my work depend on how others react to what I do – and I have little direct control of that: influence is the best I can really hope for. Claiming that failure is simply the premeditated failure of the professional to get it right vastly over-simplifies the nature of the situations we deal with.

Increasing the intervention may even result in the opposite effect to that desired. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that the more I do for my pupils, the less they feel they need to do for themselves, and I have colleagues who are finding the same. The incitement to teachers to do more may well be having a negative effect, while a ‘failure’ to act may just as easily be the result of insightful judgement as neglect.

There is a multitude of external factors that also affect the outcomes of a teacher’s work, many of which involve purely reactive relationships. And yet institutional thinking believes it reasonable to hold teachers individually to account for many such situations – sometimes so precisely that a numerical target is applied. This is a denial of reality, for production targets are meaningless in real educational terms, more subject to apparent chance than anything else.

Such has been the emphasis on the supply-side of education in recent years that my pupils often react with surprise when I remind them that their teachers also exist to assess how they respond to the education they are being given. Many now seem to see schooling as a situation where they are the purely passive recipients of a service, where they need take no responsibility for any of their actions or outcomes.  This has been exacerbated by the demise of things that ‘remind’ them of those responsibilities, such as end-of-year exams in lower-secondary education.

Teaching children such responsibility is in itself part of their education.The effect of ramping up the demands on precisely those who have only partial control of the situation has been to shift the emphasis away from those whom we are really seeking to influence. The argument that children have diminished responsibility on account of their immaturity misses the point in typically progressive fashion: the whole purpose of education is to develop such understandings in them, not give in to the fact they don’t already have them. It is, in my view, entirely reasonable to place upon children a requirement that they too accept some responsibility for their actions, and that includes engaging with the educational process. But I would also argue that a teacher’s responsibility therefore also extends to not duping them into believing that lessons are simple matters of transient fun, with no longer-term consequences.

To remove from children any sense of their own ability or need to influence their own futures is about as great a disservice to them as I can imagine.  What is more, the zero-sum argument that children only have one chance in life is just another denial that reality is not perfect. Some children will always ‘fail’, whatever the criteria we use, through no fault of our own. And it is also worth remembering that without ‘failure’ there can also be no ‘success’ either. Forcing people onto the defensive about this is hardly helpful.

I would not wish to visit accountability on others – but if we are going to use it, then it needs to be done wisely. The key considerations must surely be:

  • an accurate identification of what the real determinants of a situation actually are;
  • where and to what extent control of them really lies, and
  • the appropriateness with which success and failure are defined.

I find it perfectly acceptable to be held responsible for my actions as a teacher – to a degree proportionate with the real influence I have over the situation. This must include an acceptance that I do not have the benefit of hindsight when making decisions about particular courses of action. I also accept it on condition that the criteria for success or failure reflect the reality of the situation, and that the assessment is made by those who have sufficient sophistication themselves to understand the interplay between all of the relevant factors.

But I do not accept it unconditionally in order to become a fall-guy whose function is to absorb the poor decisions and risk-offloading of others simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

Responsibility is a complex dynamic, particularly in collegiate institutions such as schools, and I think the balance is currently so far from being correct that it is probably doing more harm than good. If we are going to continue with such notions, there is probably only one indicator which comes close to giving a proportionate and realistic assessment – and that is intent.

In other words, we need to examine people’s motives, for this is the clearest indicator of whether they are acting in good faith or not, while also accepting that we do not live in a perfect or predictable world. This is in itself difficult, but it comes back to the concept of an on-going, individual professional ethic. Appraising this – over a suitable period of time – would provide a fairer and more accurate reflection of a teacher’s conduct that any number of attempts to pin on individuals blame for situations whose outcomes they could neither accurately predict nor fully control – or whose causes were actually collective.

But the real problem is the misidentification of the locus of responsibility in the first place. Of course teachers need to discharge their duties as well as humanly possible – but that is rarely in genuine doubt. Therefore they are not usually deserving of blame. We need to spend less time holding teachers to account and more time ensuring that the expectations of the children themselves are sufficiently demanding.

Term Eighty-two

I enjoy reading blogs from Newly Qualified Teachers – it gives me a useful perspective on what it is to be entering this profession now, of encountering the whole caboodle for the first time, of struggling to reconcile the conflicts that have multiplied many-fold since I was in the same position. And also to revisit the optimism of starting out on a great career- journey.

But by this stage of the year, one reads some posts where the tarnish is already visible, the disbelief at the stress and workload already manifest. And I smile wryly and think, “Now do it all again – about a hundred times”.  For therein you have the sum of an average teaching career. It has been notable in recent conversations with some of our current young staff that quite a few say they cannot envisage remaining in teaching long-term; well, many of us had problems at that age envisaging forty years of anything (let alone the number of years that they will have to do) but even so, I can’t say that I blame them, for all the professional problems it could cause…

For me, this was term number eighty-two, and I’m afraid to say it has to go down in the annals right at the pits end of the scale. As I observed at the time, for some reason things got ridiculously hectic surprisingly early on, and it just kept getting worse.

On the positive side, I was invited by John Tomsett to visit Huntington School, and I hoped to take up his offer, partly to quell some of my reservations about the Growth Mindset, but also because I am mightily curious about how he runs a tight ship while still both visibly caring for the wellbeing of his staff and retaining his humility as a classroom teacher. If all is what it seems, this is a remarkable balancing act. Unfortunately, my request was turned down by my own school. Growth Mindset harrumph.

The week before half-term, I caught a nasty viral infection that laid me low for several weeks, and which I then kindly passed to my wife and several other people. I don’t know whether it’s just age, the post-viral legacy of an even nastier thing a couple of years ago (which my G.P said could linger for years) or just the cumulative wear and tear of working life, but I don’t seem to be able to shake these things off as quickly as I used to… The idea that teaching can cause physical burnout is NOT A MYTH. Treat with respect.

Just when I had rather prematurely returned to work, the school landed a bombshell. Suffice it to say that last year’s department GCSE results were not our finest moment, but despite some significant internal and external extenuating circumstances (not least the fact that the exam board had introduced new content in mid-flight) it had clearly been decided that a head had to roll. It has been suggested to me by incredulous colleagues that there may have been some behind-the-scenes finger-pointing, but I’m not going to speculate. Whatever the reason, my head, it seemed had been chosen. It would appear there are some things that even eighty-one terms of good karma can’t protect you against.

Despite my convalescent state, and needing to care for my wife who was still signed-off, I was put on a ‘supportive process of  informal monitoring’, albeit of reduced duration – which sounds innocuous enough until you hear mention of the consequences of an unsatisfactory outcome.  I later realised that this was probably ‘just’ a statutory requirement.

The process involved three SLT observations over a couple of weeks, and my observation of some Outstanding teachers’ lessons. To be fair, once the issue had been raised, finger-pointing or not, ignoring the matter was clearly not an option for the school management who no doubt had a few fingers pointing in their direction too. And to be doubly fair, the process was carried out with courtesy and professionalism, and it soon became clear that my initial anxiety about a witch-hunt was unfounded. It was emphasised that this was NOT a capability procedure, more a matter of quality assurance – though that was cold comfort at the time, as both my personal life and normal working routine still went into a violent tailspin. I’m not the kind of person to take something like this lightly: it is a rabbit-in-the-headlights experience that can easily induce a kind of mental paralysis whereby you simply can’t think about anything else. It becomes all too clear that as stress levels rise, negative outcomes can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And no amount of previous experience can fully inure you to that fact…

“Engage with the process”, I was advised, and indeed I did, not being the door-slamming, storming-out-of-office type – though it didn’t feel like there was exactly a lot of choice about it at the time. In the event, I was ‘cleared of all charges’ with the lessons observed having no significant weaknesses, the pupils saying good things, and my marking being deemed fine. I can think of several reasons for the ‘lack of some pace’ that was the only recurrent criticism.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and indeed the first opportunity for some time to watch other teachers was useful, if only for seeing that their good-but-routine lessons did not differ significantly from my own, except perhaps in their adherence to ‘approved’ structures. Likewise, I have now had my own practice tested close to the limit and found not to be greatly wanting; in a strange way that is quite reassuring. Even the anxiety attacks and sleepless nights have gradually receded.

I often talk up the virtues of experience, though I can now add there are some kinds it is better not to have had. Nonetheless, it was enlightening, if only because one realises just how easily things can go wrong. These days, I have little real doubt in my own competence (and more) as a teacher – but as such situations develop, it is all too easy to start believing the scenario oneself. One also starts to worry that others, with their manifestly different outlooks, may not see it the way you do. If I did have a worry, it was the fact that I may not be sufficiently ‘on message’ for official taste; in the event, that concern was largely laid to rest, too.

It highlights the inflexibility of the current accountability culture, where ‘results’ really are all, and other factors – to say nothing of one’s wider contributions – seem to get so easily pushed to one side. One also starts to appreciate the collateral damage of such events, both in terms of people’s personal lives and their wider professional responsibilities. Are the stakes really so high that there is no better way?

An unfortunate casualty  has been the CPD session that I had planned on the engaging professional-development benefits of edu-blogging, the latest of a sequence of very well-received sessions I have delivered in recent years – which I am told will now have to wait until all three of my PM targets can once again be ticked ‘Pass’. Nose, face, spite methinks.

Still, the term ended on a good note: my current upper sixth class clearly think enough of my teaching to have bought me a John Lewis Christmas Hamper, so I can’t be all bad, even when I’m not being observed. It provided more of a lift than they will ever know. On which note, I wish my readers a joyous Festive Season, another process that I fully intend to ‘engage’ with – once I have got my taste buds back from the customary end-of-term streaming cold.

As I have said many times, social reality and in particular the nature of causality, is so complex that we attempt to rationalise it at our peril, which is why I am suspicious of people who claim they can, especially in a field like education.  The impacts of getting it wrong are arguably so wide as to be unknowable; when one hears of academics, G.P.s and head teachers taking their own lives as a result of career worries, is it really worth such a draconian approach? Even in my own (now seemingly-) mild case, while I bear no grudges, the experience has hardly been endearing.

Here’s to term Eighty-three; may the next be better than the last.

Red-button-itis

She left quickly after the lesson; a brief word of thanks – but the look in her eyes was one of disappointment. Having encountered the ramblings of this blog, the young teacher watching my lesson was perhaps expecting to see pedagogical pyrotechnics, but I fear she was disappointed.

A recent formal observation of my teaching produced a similar result – very competent but not outstanding. There is a difference between having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve (as I hopefully do) and actually delivering it on the day in the classroom. By mainstream measures, my classroom practice is sound but not remarkable.  I will say in my defence that my introverted self does react rather badly to knowing it is being watched, and my persona definitely changes in line with what I know as red-buttonitis – the way in which a piece of music you can play perfectly always goes wrong as soon as you press ‘Record’.

I’m not seeking any kind of public redress here, so what follows is solely an attempt to raise an important issue ‘in the round’; I anticipate nonetheless that it is one that will strike many chords…

Just what are we to do if the criteria against which we are judged fly in the face of what we genuinely believe (perhaps as a result of years of experience, and much reflection) to be actual good practice?

From what I can tell, the criteria for judging teaching, particularly on that good/outstanding boundary, are skewed heavily towards the amount of explicit direction being provided for moving pupils towards their predicted exam grades. In many cases, that seems to involve effectively teaching a lesson entirely and solely around how to score a high exam mark, with all other thinking, activities and content subordinated to that one outcome. I struggle to see that as good – let alone outstanding – education.

Now, I have no issue whatsoever with exams used properly (of which more another time), but I am not the only voice at present to be questioning whether exam results really are such a good proxy for effective learning after all, particularly now that they have in effect become a currency in their own right. I certainly have my doubts.

There is also a substantial body of research which suggests that overt emphasis on targets actually increases the risk of missing them. The reason is simple: effort and attention is diverted towards achieving the target per se, and away from the activity that will actually secure it, namely subject mastery – all the more so if you accept the thesis that says working memory will struggle to do both simultaneously. By aiming at the mark of education, the target shifts away from the thing itself.

It seems to be a common problem: I’ve had two highly-intelligent sixth formers in recent weeks alone telling me how the growing pressure is preying on their minds and actually impairing their ability to study – and they are by no means the first. And yet we are encouraged actually to trade on pressure, in the belief that it can only enhance work rates…

Furthermore, it seems to me that looking too hard for something actually makes it disappear – the more you actively crave happiness, the less you find it. That’s the problem with the red button: as soon as you raise the stakes you become hyper-aware, and that itself is enough to cause failure. Part of the process of Flow is sub-conscious; many musicians know all too well what happens when you start ‘watching’ yourself playing…

The problem with theories comes when they are used in an idealistic sense, as in stipulating how reality ‘ought’ to behave, often where empirical information is either not available or is too complex to make certainty easy. That is how we judge what we presume to be good teaching: so-called pragmatic ‘common sense’ suggests that giving people targets and driving them hard will lead to their doing more work and achieving better results; experience suggests that this is not (always) the case. Even where more work is being done, the quality will not always be such that it is genuinely productive.

The classroom is where many of these problems collide: from the ideology-driven models of what education ‘ought’ to be, through sometimes-misconceived notions of how learning works, to managerial requirements for accountability, teachers are caught between many conflicting demands. If the determinants of what a teacher does in the classroom are compliance with external demands or expectations, then this can easily compromise what he or she judges to be genuinely in the pupils’ interests.

When the expectations in a lesson observation are based on assumptions like these, it makes it difficult to explain why one is doing something different, no matter how well considered. Particularly with the older students, I prefer a more gradualist, reflective approach, one that emphasises the importance of subject mastery in achieving highly, rather than a somewhat cynical attempt to ‘game’ the exam.  I emphasise the need to internalise understanding, and explain that this process cannot normally take place quickly or under pressure; the dynamics of the mind see to that. While my students are aware of their targets, and make good progress towards them, I place little emphasis there, preferring instead to focus all our attention on the actual studying we are doing; if anything, I try to shield my students from the external pressures.

It’s probably not surprising that this doesn’t square well with official expectations. Preconceived judgments made of such lessons may mistake the actual effectiveness of the teaching, and misunderstand the strategies being used by the teacher.

In a culture that demands close accountability, criteria clearly are needed to identify good practice. But measuring things just for the sake of it, simply on the grounds that they are relatively easily identified is not good grounds for doing it. The constraint that this imposes is a good example of how such preconceptions can effectively narrow what is considered acceptable practice – and given the absence of visible alternatives, this then becomes self-perpetuating.

If correct, my view that teaching is a far more subtle activity than is now represented, can mean that things a teacher is doing that actually make a real long-term educational difference to pupils may not be readily visible to the short-term observer looking for exam-targeted progress. The more I read and reflect, the more I conclude that the natural companion of teaching and learning is psychology, not economics. A teacher working on that assumption will not be judged well by a system that thinks the opposite.

I’m content with being merely ‘good’ in official eyes; I have made conscious decisions not to do some of the things I am being told make an outstanding teacher because my reading of the psychology, and the feedback I receive from students, suggests that they may not be quite as outstanding as the system seems to think. I can easily live with that.

But it seems ironic that the system put in place to identify excellence may itself not be up to the job when it encounters something other than what it has – however mistakenly – already pre-ordained it is looking for.

That, I suspect, is also why my young colleague looked disappointed.

It seems they won’t…

After my previous post, I was not intending to comment on the recent speech made by head teacher Steve Fairclough regarding the desirability of creating a fear-culture in schools. I found his comments so utterly beyond the pale that I first suspected he had been misreported, but it seems not.

Mr. Fairclough’s comments only serve to reinforce everything I have previously said about the tenuous grasp some managers seem to have on reality. I’m not sure such views really deserve a considered response, so I will restrict myself to the following points:

  1. The teaching profession is not some kind of closed monastic order in which the principal has unfettered claim over every aspect of his subordinates’ lives.
  2. No matter how they discharge their job, it is unreasonable deliberately to bring people’s private lives in any workplace issues.
  3. It is even more unreasonable knowingly to take actions that will affect the families of teachers, who have nothing to do with any workplace issue.
  4. Teachers do not “ruin the lives of children” – unless we are talking about unethical or illegal behaviour. At worst they may fail to enhance pupils’ lives but they do not generally destroy what pupils already have or are. What children might be is so unknowable as to be inadmissible.
  5. It is not possible fairly to link performance and reward to conditions that are neither objective nor proven – which includes almost all teaching practices.
  6. Creating a climate of fear in a school doesn’t only affect so-called bad teachers. Good ones by definition will worry too and fearful people do not perform well. This  risks becoming a self-fulfilling policy.
  7. Performance-related pay has been shown to have little or no effect on student outcomes.
  8. Schools are not exempt from legislation relating to workplace bullying and harassment; the line between justifiable procedures and victimisation is notoriously thin. There is nothing that says this cannot apply to head teachers – even those who seem to consider themselves immortal.

Steve Fairclough claims to be a champion for improving young people’s lives, but he seems utterly indifferent to ruining the lives of others in the process. This arrogance is not the principled position he seems to think; if accurate, it is one of the worst examples of management delusion I have encountered.

I suspect that many teachers will now not even consider working with Mr. Fairclough; a fine way to preserve and enhance the human capital that he, like any other head teacher needs in order to function.

The Dead Hand strikes again

Coinciding with my post on pupil appraisal of teachers, The Daily Telegraph ran this article. The idea seems to be catching on – except, as with all such things, official appropriation would kill it stone dead. The proposal is for a long list of questions for pupils to answer – in other words another tick-list in place of (or more likely as well as) the existing ones. The problem, as usual, is that The System (be that in schools or higher up the chain) seems utterly incapable of ceding control of anything whatsoever, and just trusting people to get on with it.

This proposal immediately hijacks the idea with a list of questions that cannot help but impose a certain agenda on the process; this in turn removes the autonomy upon which basis a review relies to work best. It asks too many questions (which some pupils may not understand), the real purpose being to make teachers conform to official expectations, rather than to judge whether they are really supporting their pupils.

I don’t think that pupils’ subjectivity is necessarily a problem – the reality is that in a job like teaching, ultimately all judgments are subjective. Responses may need to be taken with the proverbial pinch; that’s easily done – but less so by people further-removed from the classroom. The real problem with subjectivity comes when people are deluded about it – when they start treating opinion as fact. Pretending that one is t’other does not change the fundamental reality.

Exam results can of course tell us something, but they are not the be-all-and-and-all either. I come across many children who have very good exam results but still seem unable to think independently, or to possess any curiosity or long-term knowledge base either. It is all too possible to hot-house children to achieve high exam results, relying on short-term memory and exam-gaming strategies without actually educating them well. In fact, that’s precisely what the system as presently constituted is best at.

Equally, there are many reasons why children under-achieve at exams that are not directly within the teacher’s control. Then there are the children who will not achieve highly in exams but who can still get a lot from a supportive teacher. It is not reasonable to hold people to account for things they cannot control – especially while ignoring valuable (but perhaps intangible) things that they can control; this is why the reliance on exam results as the sole judge of a teachers’ worth is highly dubitable.

In fact, the only way to appraise a teacher’s effectiveness in the round is through summative comment. Structure should be kept to a minimum necessary for guidance, and it should allow respondents the space to make their own comments. This would also allow for recognition of attributes that official structures overlook, such as the impact of extra-curricular activities or trips, and the real value of the support and relationships built.

I occasionally ask my pupils anonymously to rate their experiences with me; I do it across the age-range, though I lend most weight to the older students, who know me better, are less likely to make superficial judgements and have more at stake for making fair, but if necessary critical comments. This can be a bit nerve-jangling but also very reassuring.

The important thing, which the official plan ignores, however, is that the process is all the more effective for my retaining control of it. I am perfectly capable of constructing a representative set of questions that will cover the main issues (why would it do it if I didn’t want that?) but in a suitably concise way.  I am also quite capable of collating the results and reflecting on what they show; the nerves are moderated by knowing that the stakes involved are for the most part only my own. I reflect on the results, but also interpret them in the light of my specific situation, rather than as a set of decontextualised statistics. I keep the comments, so that they are available for inspection if needs be.

In my view, none of the foregoing need challenge a professional person unduly – the real difficulty comes when one fears it is going to be taken out of one’s hands, potentially to become yet another beating-stick. I’m not so naïve as not to realise there needs to be some oversight in the system – but how much micro-management is really necessary unless there are wider concerns?

This is born of the same fundamental problem that is afflicting so much of current professional life – the complete lack of trust in individuals professionally to regulate their own practice.

Yet again, the Dead Hand of Bureaucracy would kill at birth an otherwise potentially valuable process.

Responsibility versus accountability

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement written by Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College – a man who from past experience normally writes good sense. His theme was the need for university lecturers to be appraised by tough student feedback, but he drew on his experience in schools.

I was expecting this to be a challenging read. I completely accept the obligation on people in responsible professional positions to explain themselves, but base instinct says this is potentially threatening – all the more so for people who take their practice seriously in the first place. This is compounded in the current climate, when tight adherence is expected to a single but complex classroom model, and the ‘wrong’ justification, no matter how well judged, may not be accepted. There are so many technical criteria that it’s very difficult to feel confident that one has covered every base during an appraisal – and since the interpretation ultimately remains a subjective one in any case, there’s also the added lottery factor.

The buzz word these days is not ‘responsibility’ but ‘accountability’. Someone said that ‘accountability is what is left when responsibility has been removed’. That struck a chord with me, encapsualting the loss of autonomy, balance and plurality of insight permissible – and it certainly seems to capture the vague sense of threat that can surround such processes.

So I read on with some trepidation. Seldon described how his daughter and her friends had been able to sum up their teachers more succinctly than any professional process he had managed. He went on to observe that feedback of this sort is rarely sought at university level. But true to form, he dropped back into something with which I can largely agree: his basic premise that students have pertinent views, supports a non-technocratic approach to appraisal, whereby personal qualities, assessed ‘in the round’ count more than ticked boxes.

He argues that students are far more likely to judge the whole person than a professional observer who will simply be looking for adherence to certain norms. They are also the ones who sense best whether their personal and educational needs have been met. A student who can say, “This teacher was a supportive person, who was approachable and who had time for me, who helped me to develop my thinking and deepen my understanding” is arguably providing a far more useful summation of the situation than a page of boxes ticked by professional observer, for all that  it subjective. Or as one wrote to me last summer, “I owe my love of this subject to you.” How much more does one need?

Seldon writes, “Teaching is both an art and a science. It can best be learned through a willingness to listen and change, through the mentoring of experienced practitioners, and with the feedback of students forming a fundamental part of the process.”

Yet our obsession with spurious measurement of the educational process has almost entirely neglected the ‘art’ component of this, which from my experience is precisely the element that makes it work, or not. The need for accountability has fallen into the trap of ‘valuing the measurable’ simply because that which is really valuable isn’t easily measurable. It has also neglected any input from people other than line managers.

He continues, “Great teachers share common characteristics, including optimism, a love of their subject and their students, a deep curiosity about their discipline, and a fierce determination to improve themselves and to be reflective.”

I have some reservations over his emphasis on teaching teaching – not because the technicalities can’t be shared, but because they can’t be forced. No matter how well one instils the basics, what makes for successful teaching is innate and unique to each individual. Taught generalisations cannot deal with this – useful personality traits, and above all a sense of vocation ultimately have to come from within. He nonetheless has the sentiment right: most of my own most valuable teaching tools came from a similar introspective process; the external programme of support has contributed some useful ideas but that is all. One must be free to decide what works and what doesn’t, and deploy as one sees fit.

On reflection, maybe the students would do a better job than the sheets of tick-boxes…