Dear Mr Gove,
Like many other highly qualified and experienced teachers, I am quitting the profession. I can no longer work in a system which pretends to be inclusive while widening the gap between rich and poor; places no value on the arts subjects; treats its teachers like naughty children who need constant monitoring; makes changes to courses, content and assessments with little regard to evidence; and reduces children to target grades. Although I am leaving to pursue a career in Educational Psychology, the timing of my leaving is no coincidence.
I really don’t get what you are doing? I don’t understand why you believe breaking up the collective strength of Local Authorities and encouraging schools to open in unsuitable buildings with unqualified staff is the right way forward? I don’t understand why certain subjects are being elevated above others? Schools are not training camps for the Corporations. Are they?
Schools should be where minds are opened and critical questions formed. Where literature, art, dance and film are celebrated and our future actors, writers, directors and choreographers are nurtured. That’s what I signed up for. To share my passion for my subject and foster a curiosity and desire to learn that extends well beyond the school years. Teaching is so much more than just knowing your stuff. I have spent fourteen years developing expertise in how we learn. I am at my peak in terms of experience and mastery, but I must redirect this expertise into a new career in order to regain my autonomy.
The reality is I am impotent in the face of damaging policies that are leaving students stressed and disillusioned. I am sick of having to positively spin changes to assessments and courses to keep the students motivated. I am sickened by the media frenzy every August that grows ever more hateful, fuelled by a government that accuses teachers of cheating and manipulating results and belittles the hard work of our students. I am sick of the constant monitoring and grading of lessons that has crept into every school. I am sick of ever moving goalposts, attacks on my professionalism (and the impact that has on my relationship with parents and students). I am sick of the vitriol.
I never thought I would want to leave teaching. The very first day I entered the classroom I knew I had found my calling, my place, my home. I have loved being a teacher. I am teacher; it runs through my core like a stick of rock. But I can no longer be a teacher.
My profession, full of dedicated people who go the extra mile, is being trashed on a daily basis. Each morning I hear another news story in which teachers are exam cheats, lazy, militant, uncaring, in it for the holidays, the pay, the pension, unfit to do anything else, whinging tax burdens. The school I was once loved to arrive at each morning has changed. Learning walks, monitoring visits, work sampling, quality assurance observations, performance management observations and mocksted’s are stifling creativity, experimentation and fun.
The constant changes to how we teach and what we teach, to appease a baby boomer electorate (with rose-tinted glasses of a 1950’s idyll that never existed), heap on more and more pressure. The progressive attitudes such as modular exams, which level the playing field and give students a chance to build their knowledge and skills incrementally, as is the case in the real world, are gone. Despite the media hype, more and more young people are leaving school with qualifications and permanent exclusion is at an all-time low. Compare that to the ‘golden era’ of 1950’s education, which you seem so fond of invoking,
[when] the school system did not do particularly well by the great majority of those born in 1958, leaving them with few qualifications and putting them at a considerable disadvantage in earning power.
Unlike your empty rhetoric, the The National Child Development Study, from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which has been following 17,000 people since 1958 provides conclusive evidence that the grammar system was divisive, labelling many (usually working class) children as uneducable.
Only 12% of them moved on from primary schools, via the 11-plus, to a grammar school. Most of the rest attended schools that lacked pupils in the top end of the ability range. A similarly small proportion went on to university. By the age of 33, just 14% of men and 11% of women in this cohort had achieved a degree.
Academies and Free schools are the grammar schools of today, able to apply their own selection criteria, leaving Local Authorities impotent to challenge them. Well done, Mr Gove, for returning the UK to a two tier education system, which only serves the elite. Bravo!
nearly two-thirds of those born in 1958 left school as soon as they could at age 16. By the time they were 33, around 15% still had no educational qualifications and a further 10% were only qualified to a level below O-Levels. A further one-third had O-Levels but no qualifications higher than that.
Today, by contrast, the great majority of young people stay on in education to 18. Some 40% go on to university.
This may come as a surprise to you, but I wasn’t in it for the pay. I wasn’t in it for the holidays, or the pension or because I am lazy. I wasn’t in teaching because I was unable to do anything else. On the contrary I chose to be a teacher. And now I choose not to be a teacher.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the education system in the UK doesn’t need improving. We need to invest in high quality teacher training that ensures the profession uses evidence based techniques in pedagogy and doesn’t assume that children – complex, intricate individuals – can be taught with the one dominant method; however compelling it is to present a simple solution to the electorate. We need to invest in science and technology, but not lose sight of the need for a civilised society to contain more than just engineers and mathematicians. We need to respect and trust our teachers, nurture their talents and listen to them. They are the experts not the enemy.
So, I say to you Mr Gove, stop painting us as incapable, inadequate and selfish when we challenge you. Please. Before you lose even more of us. Change and progress can come about with the support of teachers not in spite of them. We are a pretty well educated bunch. We can see what is wrong and what the solutions need to be. Engage with us, don’t alienate us and please stop dragging education backwards into a ‘golden age’ that never existed.
The 1958 generation also had poor basic skills. When they were aged 37, a sample was tested for basic numeracy and literacy: almost half had ‘very poor’ numeracy skills and 6% had difficulty with reading.Those with poor numeracy and literacy were, not surprisingly, much more likely to be unemployed.
So, as we contemplate the almost daily bad news about class sizes, school drop-outs, and the poor basic skills of school-leavers, we should perhaps pause to remember that – while there is certainly still plenty of room for improvement – the answer does not seem to lie in a nostalgic return to a past system which served the few very well and the majority poorly.
And watch out Mr Gove, I may be leaving teaching, but I am not leaving education. Once I have my Doctorate I will make it my mission to support the profession that has given me so much joy and satisfaction. I will fight every policy that is based on nostalgia and flim-flam. I will insist that teachers are trained to teach before they are let anywhere near a classroom.
Long after you’ve moved onto to whatever will promote your political interests further I will still be working to improve the life chances of all children.
I don’t know if you will even remember me, but you gave me my first teaching job in 1995 after I responded to an ad in the local paper to teach GNVQ Health and Social Care.
Teaching was something I had always wanted to do, but without a degree I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of securing a position. At the time I was a registered nurse with a toddler and new baby, married to a Sergeant in the Royal Engineers and living on an army base in Chatham. I am not sure what possessed you to take on an unqualified and completely inexperienced novice like me, but you did. Looking back I must have driven you mad arriving in your office every morning to show you my lesson plans and a bombard you with a million question, but never once did you act like I was a nuisance – even though, as Deputy Head, you had a zillion things to do. The eighteen months I spent at Sittingbourne Community College made me surer than ever that teaching was the career I wanted to pursue. You also saved me from certain death by mother and toddler conversations (I was never cut out for full-time motherhood). You generously gave me your time and nurtured the teacher within. I was in total awe of your ability to manage a class of boisterous fourteen year olds without ever losing your cool – and vowed to one day be as good as you. I particularly remember one student on the Child Development NVQ course who claimed to be psychic and remarked on more than one occasion that she had a strong sense of twins when we were together in the same room. Disinclined as I am to believe in the mystical, I chose to believe in her assertion – daring to hope it meant that you saw yourself in the untrained, but eager me.
It was with a huge reluctance I left Sittingbourne. My husband, John, had been posted to Hameln, Germany (the town where the Pied Piper stole all the children). I cried on and off for days at the thought of leaving the UK and a job that I loved, but as we celebrate twenty-two years of marriage and he supports me on yet another life-changing adventure, I can honestly say I would follow him to the end of time and beyond.
In Germany, with teaching jobs in short supply, I returned to my first career of nursing, but kept my skills up to date by using my NVQ Assessor qualifications. As you know I was studying for a psychology degree (OU), which I finished in the final year in Germany in 1999. My husband left the army and we bought our first house back in my home county. We arrived in the UK just in time for my graduation. I was presented my 1st Class honours (BSc) by Cherie Blair – when Tony Blair was still riding high and we all believed this prosperity and peace would last forever. Armed with a degree and the invaluable teaching experience I gained in Sittingbourne, I trawled the papers for a teaching job – despite still not having a teaching qualification. Another wonderful teacher, Mr John Brandon, Head of Mark Rutherford Upper School in Bedford, gave me that chance and funded my training to reach Qualified Teacher Status. A year later I repaid his faith in me and started Mark Rutherford’s first psychology department (which is still going strong today). I spent four years at the school developing my teaching and middle management skills and completing a Masters in Research Methods. I also learnt to control my classes without losing my cool (most of the time). Five years later, in 2004, with my children entering middle school and the addition of a cat and dog, plus another house move, I applied for Head of Department at a well-respected local school and got it.
In the ten years since, my two children have grown up and left home, one to Warwick to study philosophy, and one to Honduras to work as a teacher volunteer (now returned and off to UCL to study languages in September). The cat and the dog have gotten a bit decrepit (and been joined by a scruffy rescue puppy) and I have somehow reached my forties and have too many grey hairs. In that time I have mentored five student teachers (one is now a head of department) and built a thriving, successful department as well as enjoying the challenge of enhanced roles in learning and teaching . I have taught psychology to hundreds of students and have finally mastered the art of behaviour management – almost 🙂
At forty-three it is time for me (before it is too late) to say goodbye to my role as a classroom teacher and begin a new and exciting career. A career that would not have been possible if eighteen years ago you hadn’t hired a twenty-something nurse whose only classroom experience came from watching Dead Poet’s Society (five times). A week ago I accepted a place on the Doctorate in Child and Educational Psychology at University College London (UCL). I am incredibly fortunate to have been offered only one of 11 places from a field of 300 applicants! In three years’ time (all going to plan) I will be a Chartered Educational Psychologist and have the skills and professional standing to enable even more positive change in the lives of young people.
So thank you Ann Saunders. Thank you for everything – it all started with you 🙂
Your humble student (and spiritual twin),
I’m sorry you think I have let you down. I thought I was doing a good job and that you respected my efforts. I thought you weren’t serious about the holidays, after all my pay reflects this. I thought you understood that a contracted teaching day of five one-hour lessons, only reflects my contact time with students, not my total working hours. I thought you knew that planning lessons takes a lot of time, creativity and ingenuity and that there is a lot of marking to be done at weekends.
I thought you believed I was doing the best for our children; that I was fighting the exam machine with all my might and teaching our children to think for themselves and to enjoy learning for learning’s sake.
I thought we were on the same side and that you realised I can’t fix all the problems in society, only ameliorate the damage. I thought you understood this phony war between us was borne out of political ambition and a need to apportion blame for the effects of deep cuts to provision.
If education is the football then we are the grass, gouged and churned by the players who come and go in a perpetual reshuffle.
I can’t do this job alone. I can’t make our children want to learn all by myself. I need your help. I need you on my side. My job and yours is to hold a steady course, to not be distracted by lurid headlines, to remember we want the same thing.
If you really think about it, I am damned either way. If results improve it is because of grade inflation, and if they don’t it must be my fault.
I don’t do this job for the grades or the holidays or the pension. I do this job because I love teaching and it is something I believe I am good at. I do this job because working with teenagers is exhilarating and challenging and hilarious and I get a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing them succeed. I do this job because I love sharing the passion for my subject and seeing the same passion ignited in my students.
I hope this letter goes someway to repairing our relationship and the next time you read about how inadequate I am, you consider the intent behind the words.
Despite the relentless negative press stories and attacks on my professionalism, pay, pension and conditions of service, I can’t think of any other job I would rather do.
I’m not perfect. I admit I get things wrong. Not every lesson I teach is ‘outstanding’. I have my off days and occasionally I get behind on my marking, but I am in this job for the right reasons and I am trying to do the very best I can.
A secondary school teacher
Sir Michael said regional chiefs were being given orders to root out poor-performing schools, chains of academies and local authorities in each region.
In particular, they will be told to crackdown on schools that:
• Fail to stretch the brightest and weakest pupils by placing them in mixed-ability lessons;
• Enter large numbers of pupils early for GCSEs simply to bank a pass-mark before moving pupils on to other courses;
• Consistently mislabel poorly-performing pupils as suffering from special educational needs to disguise weak teaching;
Critics have warned that many schools are failing to place children into ability bands because of “ideological” opposition to the system by teachers.
I could blog about the lack evidence they have for their spurious assertions, in particular the idea that teachers are against ‘setting’ for ideological reasons, and the unsubstantiated assumption that mixed ability classes damage the most able.
The view that, at least for certain subjects, learning is best when pupils are grouped by ability seems to be widely held by teachers and others, as is evident from the setting that takes place within comprehensive schools. […] We may also note that despite widespread belief in the benefits of setting, it is not a view that is really supported by research evidence (Mosteller et al, 1996). Evidence of the effects of Selective Educational Systems.
I could rage on about how unfair it is, and how teachers (me included) are seriously considering why we work in a profession that is seen as an easy route for lazy,whinging people, who can’t do anything else. I could give you a run down of my typical day and the variety of roles I must simultaneously fulfill – but my job is no more difficult than many other jobs that involve dealing with emotions, expectations and hopes (nursing, policing, social work, childminding, youth workers, probation officers and on and on).
Instead I want to tell you about my teacher, Mr Hallet, who worked at Bushmead Primary School in Luton in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. I guess I was around 9 or 10 when he became our form tutor. I do remember it was love at first sight. His front teeth slanted backwards and when he spoke, a line of spittle would extend from his top lip to his bottom lip. I loved that line of spittle. I loved watching it break and reform as he shared another exciting fact about the world. He had dark hair, I think he was tall, though I was very, very short (kinda like a munchkin) – I didn’t get much taller as it happens. Whenever I remember Mr Hallet it is summer (why is it when we think of our childhoods it is always summer?) He read us Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny Champion of the World’ under a broad oak tree on the grass border that surrounded the playground every afternoon, until the bell went for home time. I remember lying on my back on the cool grass and looking through the leaves, while plump pheasants drunk on hand sewn alcohol-laced raisins plopped on the ground around me. His mellifluous voice wove pictures in my head. I do wonder if he is one of the reasons I love reading and writing. I cried when I left primary school. I swore I would never forget him. I never have.
On a side note, he was also partly responsible for the one and only broken bone of my childhood. A greenstick fracture of my right wrist. On a residential field trip, he offered aeroplane rides on his feet. I couldn’t wait for my turn and possibly pushed myself to the front of the queue. To be in his gaze was to be in heaven. His soles pressed against my tummy, gently, as he lifted me up in the air, grasping my hands in his and flying me around. Over-excited me, shouted; more, harder, faster – and then all I remember is flying over his head and thinking, I am really flying, before the grass came up suddenly and I realised, too late, I had let go of his hands. The rest is history. I didn’t cry. I didn’t want him to think I was a baby. My wrist looked wonky. It hurt a lot. He took me to hospital. I came back to the outdoor centre with a white plaster cast. He cuddled me and bought me an ice-cream. My parents came to collect me (once they had been found in the time of BMP -before mobile phones). I made them take me straight back there the next day and stayed for the rest of the week. He was the first to sign my cast. He was my first love. He may also have been the reason I became a teacher.
He made each and everyone of us feel special, important, unique and loved. I am so glad whatever it is Mr Hallet couldn’t do, meant he chose to teach.
In this little corner of the blogosphere, let’s celebrate those teachers who made going to school an adventure. Who made a difference in our lives. Who chose teaching, not because of what they couldn’t do, but because of what they could.
Got a teacher you want to salute. Remember them here. Share your stories. Let’s remind all those beleaguered teachers (including me) why it is one of the best jobs in the world. And Mr Hallet, if you read this, thank you.
Please do share.
Why is it I feel somewhat shameful about admitting what I do for a living?
Civil servant: So Minister, how exactly are you going to leave your mark on Education in Britain?
Michael Gove: I am going to encourage all schools to become Academies, open as many Free schools as I can, utilising empty office space, bring back O-levels and Latin, and save the country millions of pounds in teachers wages, by opening up the profession to non-graduates. The army need to make a lot of redundancies, so we will turn the soldiers into teachers. Oh, and I am going slash the pension fund to help pay for the deficit.
Civil Servant: Very good Minister, but I feel I must point out that under the previous administration, schools were only turned into Academies if they were failing.
M.G.: Right. Then we must do the exact opposite. A school can only become an Academy if it is graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
CS: And what about the other 80% that aren’t oustanding? Surely you want all schools to be taken over by parents and idealistic teachers, and of course [cough] profit making [cough] private enterprises.
M.G.: Mmmm. I know. We will tell the rest of the schools they can apply to be Academies too, but only after the ‘outstanding’ ones have already applied.
CS: And what about the schools that don’t want to apply?
M.G.: Will accuse them of being obstructive and prejudiced; of being happy with failure.
CS: Right. So all schools will be Academies. And what is the reason we give the outstanding schools for why they should become Academies? Clearly they are doing very well already.
M.G.: We don’t need to give them a reason, we just need to give them money.
CS: But there isn’t any money.
M.G.: There isn’t any additional money. We’ll Slash schools budgets by bringing the amount per pupil over the age of 16 in line with Further Education colleges – that’ll serve the National Union of Head Teachers right for demanding parity in funding. Demand all schools repay deficits in their budgets immediately, and then offer them the money back if they become and Academy.
CS: We are going to bribe them. I see. Very good idea. But how do we sell this idea to the public? More and more children are achieving the benchmark 5 A to C’s each year in grant-maintained schools.
M.G.: That’s easy. I’ll invent a new performance measure. How about saying the 5 subjects must contain English and Maths.
CS: We already measure that statistic.
M.G.: Do we? Right then. A bit of blue sky thinking is required. What subject/s do children not tend to get a GCSE in?
CS: The Labour government made Languages optional because there was a shortage of language teachers, so lots of 14 year olds drop languages at the end of Year 9.
M.G.: Perfect. The new measure will group the core subjects together: English and Maths and science, ummm? What other subjects do schools offer?
CS: History, geography…
M.G.:Yes one of those, and of course a Language like Mandarin.
CS: I take it, Minister, we will apply this new measure once we have informed schools, so they can advise their students about GCSE choices.
M.G.: Don’t be ridiculous, man. The whole point of this new qualification is to show how badly schools are doing… what should we call it?
CS: There’s the IB – the International Baccalaureate, it groups subjects together in a similar way…
M.G.: Marvellous, we shall call it the English Baccalaureate. E.Bacc for short.
CS (whispered): E. Bacc? Sounds a bit like a nasty type of food poisoning.
M.G.: What was that?
CS: An excellent idea, Minister. So we will measure schools on a performance indicator they didn’t know about and then, in two years time, when schools have forced their students to take a Language, it will look like you have single-handedly improved standards.
CS: I’m still worried you might get some resistance to rebranding schools as Academies, when Ofsted only rated 10% of all schools in England and Wales as unsatisfactory.
M.G.: Get me the head of Ofsted on the phone. Who is the head of Ofsted?
CS: Michael Wilshaw, Minister.
M.G.: “Wilshaw. I need you to make more schools unsatisfactory. I don’t care how you do it man, just do it. Uh huh- yes – wonderful idea. Yes do it.”
CS: What did Wilshaw say?
M.G.: He said, Grade 3 satisfactory will be re-branded as unsatisfactory. As of tomorrow, 40% of schools will be failing.
M.G.: Then grade 3 will be, ummm…any ideas?
CS: A little below average?
M.G.: No, grade 3 will be; ‘not good enough‘.
CS: Isn’t that the same as unsatisfactory.
M.G.: Exactly. Is that it? I’m due at the PM’s for drinks.
CS: No minister. Not quite.
M.G.: What else? We’ve made half the schools unsatisfactory, with terrible EBacc results, surely the public will accept Academies and free schools now?
M.G.: Well then we must discredit both the exams system and the teachers that administer it – the public barely tolerate teachers for having all those holidays as it is, so it won’t take much to turn their envy to hatred.
CS: But teachers only get paid pro-rata to reflect the extra holiday.
M.G.: Keep that to yourself, man. Let’s blame the grade inflation on coursework modules. Teachers cheat and do the coursework for them.
CS: We have no evidence of that.
M.G.: Evidence? Since when has government policy been determined by evidence? We’ll spread the rumour that teachers cheat and then propose to get rid of coursework all together, which will strain the exam system to breaking point – killing two birds with one stone – besmirch the reputation of teachers and prove the exam system is broken.
CS: What about subjects that need coursework?
M.G.: We will make students do it at school under exam conditions.
CS: There isn’t time in the school day to fit that in.
M.G.: Which means standards will drop and the public will blame the teachers because they are lazy, whining cheats. We will also release a statement saying; it is criminal that the majority of schools are not above average.
CS: That is statistically impossible, Minister. The majority is the average.
CS: What happens if you get picked up for it, by an education correspondent from the TES, for example?
M.G.: Bloody TES. I’ll blame my comprehensive education.
CS: Excellent Minister. Are you planning on bringing back grammar schools?
M.G.: It pains me to say ‘no’ because the baby boomers would love it, but I just don’t think I can get that one past the Liberals. However, we will bring back O levels and CSE’s – that should secure the vote of the nostalgic brigade.
CS: But if the GCSE is fit for purpose, which it appears to have been for 30 years, how will we float this idea?
M.G.: We must make it unfit for purpose, immediately. Give me the head of Ofqual. “Glenys, we must have a drop in GCSE passes this year. I don’t care how you do it. Tell the exam boards they must regrade all the exams. Yes, send an email if you must, but do not copy me in.”
CS: We could also play up grade inflation by pointing to the number of students that do resits, and the fact we have exam boards competing for business.
M.G.: Excellent idea. I can see you have the right mentality for politics. We will scrap all resits and give students only one chance to pass the exam. And we will do away with separate exam boards and have just the one.
CS: Teachers have been calling for one exam board for years – that should make them happy.
M.G.: We can’t have that. We must have unhappy, militant teachers, who go on strike and upset parents. It is the only way we are going to get away with eroding their pay and conditions, stealing their pensions and make them work longer hours. And they must keep children in school longer so both parents can go to work and therefore consume more, leading to wealth creation for the top 1%.
CS: How are we going to upset the teachers?
M.G.: Apart from freezing their pay, moving to regional payscales and plundering their pensions? A constant drip feed of attacks on their work ethic in the press. We can say ‘some of them’ are lazy, incompetent and in it for the holidays.
CS: But in every professions, ‘some’ people will be incompetent. It is not particular to teachers. I had an incompetent plumber come round the other day and now I have no hot water.
M.G.: Exactly. But by the time the plebs on BBC’s Have your Say and Twitter have finished, all teachers will be incompetent.
CS: An excellent Educational Policy, Minister.
What do you think? Are teachers the ones that are out of step with the world? Should we just put up and shut up? Do you think teaching is worse today than it was when you were in school? I really would love to know what you think.
Reflections from a Consultant Clinical Psychologist
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - As W. B. Yeats never said
My views on Teaching & Education
Writer. Believer in the positive power of prison libraries. Managing editor of Forge Literary Magazine. Creative writing teacher.
Medical journalist Jerome Burne investigates...
Moving back to Australia after ten years living overseas
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sexuality, research methods, social justice