What did you set out to do with your new book, Just Great Teaching?
My work now involves regularly visiting schools all around the country, and increasingly other countries too. Arriving at a school for the first time, you pick up a sixth sense for what makes a good learning good environment. It’s the welcome you get at reception, what you see from visiting the classrooms and what you pick up from the ethos and culture.
I’ve visited around 150 different schools in the last two years, and seen the majority of them attempting to do exactly the same thing; what makes them unique and different to one another is pretty much their location, the types of kids they have and their building infrastructure. Having seen those schools, I wanted to share my experiences and celebrate the amazing work that’s going on. I made an effort to feature a range of different schools in the book – not just state schools, but also grammar, alternative provision and independent, across primary and secondary.
Were there any experiences or examples of practice you saw on your travels that really stayed with you?
There were two in particular. Visiting Queen Mary’s Grammar School, and seeing what they’re doing in a tough area of Walsall, made me rethink my perception of grammars. It’s one of the oldest schools in the country, dating back to 1554, and while they might select their kids, they’re still needing to support children who have significant mental health issues and doing incredible work in response to that. Set aside the structure, and it’s clear that there are teachers there who simply want the best for their kids. That said, we also had some good, healthy discussions about the relative benefits of grammar schools and how they’re viewed by parents, the public and government.
The second was visiting Fettes College, where I felt a real sense of imposter syndrome. I’m from a working class family, and have attended and worked in state schools my whole life. I’d been invited into these grand buildings, but what I found was that the classrooms there were essentially places we’d all recognise – highly complex environments in which the work revolves around getting kids to learn and remember, as well helping them to develop pastorally.
Based on my travels and the stories and anecdotes I’m able to share, it’s my belief that most people would like to see a happy medium between high stakes accountability at one extreme and models where there’s hardly any accountability at all at the other. My experiences have also confirmed for me that schools should be rewarded for collaborating rather than competing, as they do under the model we currently have.
Throughout the book you refer to Ofsted as ‘the grim reaper’ – why is that?
Because of the high stakes involved. We’re all human, and all subject to bias and stereotyping over hard evidence – though even when we look at that evidence, it can be inaccurate. In a high stakes accountability system, that can end your career.
I’ve seen many people around me lose their jobs in state schools through redundancy or as a result of Ofsted inspections, or be forced to work longer hours through lack of funding. When the pressure’s on to get certain results, choosing to work in a disadvantaged school predominantly attended by low income families, with high levels of EAL and affected by other social demographic factors, the challenge is very real.
You’re a well established Twitter presence at this point – what’s your take on how the ‘#edutwitter’ discourse has changed and evolved over time?
In the early days, it was amazing. I could tweet out a worksheet, photograph or question and get a response while I was asleep, or get a reply quicker from a colleague in Australia than I could from someone working next door in the same building. Starting in around 2013 you then saw the rise of #WomenEd, #ResearchEd, #BAMEd, all these different social media branches where people were able to develop their own communities.
At the same time, however, there’s been lots of politicisation and use of social media to divide. We’re all clear that teachers shouldn’t express their politics in the classroom, but on social media other aspects of people’s lives – their support for certain politicians, for example – results in teacher exchanges being framed by different ideologies, particularly those with considerable influence.
I’m currently studying for a doctorate, looking at how social media has enabled teacher voice, encouraged professionalism and prompted discussion about learning theories. I’m also looking at social media theories such ‘context collusion’, which is the notion of things happening behind the scenes and the large-scale coordination of certain messages – think Cambridge Analytica.
In the book, you state that disseminating great ideas without fear of high stakes accountability ‘must be the future model for improving schools’. What would that type of system look like in practice?
Look at the Isle of Man, which has used peer-to-peer school inspection for decades without being acknowledged for it. Ofsted accepts that schools work in different contexts, but doesn’t differentiate in terms of how they’re evaluated because they want the same standards for everyone. I admire that in a way, but if you get Outstanding or put in Special Measures, it affects your teacher population. Local house prices may go up or down, and having lived and worked in London for 25 years, I’ve seen how it can even potentially influence knife crime.
Every school I’ve visited has always wanted to do better. We need to get to a place where schools can visit each other, share best practice and be given the time and space to evaluate each others’ processes – “These things are great, let’s share those, but there are one or two things we think you could do better. Let’s come back in a couple of years’ time, test it again and keep the dialogue going.” That’s preferable to having five strangers pop by your school and use an evaluation system to grade you.
According to Ofsted’s own research, only 19% of parents read their school’s full Ofsted report. We’re regularly told the existing system is ‘what parents want,’ but in the 26 years since they were inaugurated, we’ve yet to see any detailed data explaining why parents want graded schools. At the same time, Ofsted’s latest Teacher Voice survey has indicated that teachers’ views of Ofsted’s effectiveness have dropped to their lowest ever level.
The jury’s out, but I think this is a last hurrah for using a graded framework for schools. Abolishing it and adopting the Isle of Man model would enable people with similar job experience to provide critiques that are supportive and challenging, rather than high stakes.
I myself have twice opted to leave difficult situations, because life goes on and I need to feed my family. We want the best people in our schools – highly qualified people who can make a difference to both the most able and most disadvantaged children – so that our school system and society as a whole can be made better. That’s what now drives me in my day-towork – empowering teachers to become more knowledgeable through what I’ve learned on my travels, the insights on my website, blogs and books. I’ve tried to widen my own lens and challenge my own biases, and as long as people are interested, I’ll do it until circumstances change.
Completes teacher training; teaching in Lewisham and Haringey
Starts the Teacher Toolkit website; teaching in Haringey
Assistant principal at The Crest Girls’ Academy; takes voluntary redundancy in 2011
Assistant vice principal at Greig City Academy, Haringey
Deputy head at Quintin Kynaston Academy, Westminster; listed in Times 500
Moves into full-time teacher training; website development; pursues doctorate