The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here: http://share.edutronic.net/.

In an ideal world, where money, policy and societal expectations were not a problem, what would be the one shift that you’d like to see in UK education?

Without a great deal of thought I know the my one-word answer straight away…

Trust.

There is a distinct lack of trust in teachers in our modern society, and it’s stifling the profession. It’s a top-down propagation of distrust, too, long engrained in policy and only getting more problematic with every passing government.

The origins of distrust: Disempowering professionals

The erosion of trust in professionals by the government in the UK is old news, so I’ll keep my recap brief. It arguably started with Thatcher’s “New Public Management” restructuring of the public sector, and was certainly continued under the Blair premiership’s ‘new managerial’ agenda.  The resulting model of professionals has endured, and in the UK we now find ourselves with a government that is perpetuating, if not extending, such an agenda. This is highlighted in the Open Public Services white paper, which specifically promotes a decentralised approach to public service provision reminiscent of the 1980’s. Mr Cameron’s assertion that these changes “will be felt in every state school, hospital and prison, by every doctor, teacher, parent, patient and citizen” seems deaf to the loud complaints from many professional bodies who argue that these changes are detrimental to the services provided by professionals. A prime example of the response from the education sector can be seen in the Key Facts for NUT members on the new ballot which states that

This Government is more aggressive towards teachers than any we have known.

The neo-liberalisation of the professions has produced a climate of performativity, a mode of regulation whereby the documented performance of an individual or group serves as a measure of their productivity. Ball calls it “the translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures or categories of judgement”. On the surface these tools of monitoring and regulation are employed by the government in an attempt to increase transparency, accountability, and therefore public trust of professionals, but it has not worked out that way. Instead it has resulted in a disempowerment of teachers, as individual professional judgement has given way to a homogenised adherence to ‘standards’, and a strive to climb the league tables or be given the glory of an ‘outstanding’ label.

As a result we have a situation where schools and teachers are monitored through exam results and ‘snapshot’ OfSTED judgements against a set of national standards. This shows very little trust in autonomous professionalism, and little awareness of the role teachers can play in the local community.

What I feel is now required is the (re-)introduction of trust in teachers as autonomous professionals, resulting in a stronger connection with the local community and a move away from standardised central governance; a task made far more difficult now we have no local authority ‘middle-tier’ with which to collaborate.

Connecting locally, not nationally

So how can we, the teachers, fix this erosion of trust that is built into policy? I think the approach may be threefold.

  1. Accept the fact that we are street-level bureaucrats, and therefore ultimately in control of what happens in our classroom. I’m not saying that you should be like Judge Dredd, metering out education as and how you see fit, but also don’t be a slave to every top-down initiative. As Anderson says “somewhere in between it provides the freedom needed by teachers to function professionally and effectively in their classrooms”.
  2. Create a little ‘wriggle room‘; absolute standardisation leaves no space for local knowledge. All communities are not created equal, so “one-size-fits-all” will do no good. Again, as a professional, you decide how to apply policy to your schools and classes, so look for a little space for customisation when implementing directives.
  3. Lastly, know your community. It’s impossible to customise your practice without a sound knowledge of the community that you are customising it for. This isn’t just a case of looking at socio-economic data, get out there and see it first-hand. Take a staff field trip one evening to a local pub, or have a weekend jaunt to the local shopping centre. Talk to students about life outside the classroom, and where and how they spend their time. Engage with local businesses and community groups; can you get them to come into school and collaborate on a project? It’s all material that you can use to make sure you are doing the best by your students and their community.

I think it is time to take pride in being a teacher again. We work hard, strive to improve, and do the best that we can for the young minds that we encounter. Blogging is an ideal way to document this, and sharing these concerns and aims publicly means that we can be held personally accountable in far more transparent ways than performative league tables and snapshot inspections allow.

Trust is an earned and mutual commodity, let’s show that we both have it for and deserve it from our most important beneficiaries; the local community.