Last year I had the privilege to interview some of the people I admire the most in education for the Shooting Azimuths podcast. Each episode always ended with the same question: what one thing would you change to make education better? Answers ranged fairly widely from the practical to the philosophical and are transcribed below.
Dominic Norrish – Chief Operations Officer, United Learning
It’s a bit weird and counterproductive for this country and, I think, the world to view education as something to be crammed into the first fifth of someone’s life. We let them do nothing else pretty much between the ages of 4 and 18, and then there’s this sense of that that is probably enough, that you have proven yourself, and that you can get a job and not have to worry about learning anymore. Obviously some will continue learning at University and beyond, but there’s not really much of a culture of having to. And we don’t have a culture where it’s expected that when you’re, say, age 50, it would be time to go and pursue the next stage of your education, which might be a PhD. Instead it seems to be very much “let’s get education out of the way, and then get on with doing stuff”.
If you think back to when we were going to university, when Google and Facebook didn’t exist – two institutions that in just in the last two and a half decades have completely changed the world’s economy, politics, and freedoms. Now we have elections have have spun upon things that didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and may not exist in 25 years. The world is changing incredibly quickly, and the idea that you can find out everything you need to know by age 21, and then just kind of sit back and do a job for 40 years, is insane. So I would like to see ongoing education a bit more mandated, and lifelong education to become the expectation.
Andy Buck – Author, school leadership expert, and former headteacher.
Well, I think I’m going to take a leaf out of Simon Sinek’s book and start with Why. And my Why is the data that has come out recently about teacher retention. As is the case, and has always been the case, we’re losing about a third of our teachers within the first five years of them being in the profession. And that seems to be a constant message. It goes up and down a little bit every year. But broadly speaking, that’s the figure. We don’t have a teacher recruitment crisis in this country, we have a teacher retention crisis. So if that’s the Why, then you have to ask yourself, well, how is that happened? And I guess it’s because of workload that that sense of fun that was in the profession is harder to create now than it was. And because of all of the accountability pressures that exist for teachers. And why is that happened? Well, because leaders are feeling that from the system. And inevitably, that gets transmitted down the system.
And so for me, if there was one thing I would change, it would be the way that the accountability system in this country is balanced. I’m not for one minute suggesting that we don’t need to have accountability. We absolutely do. We spend a huge amount of our gross domestic product as a country and our taxes on the education system. So, of course, there needs to be accountability. But if the if the accountability balance isn’t right, you’re creating a toxicity in the system that ultimately leads to you ending up with that retention issue that I’ve just described. There are some quite simple quick wins, I think, that could be put in place that would really ameliorate some of some of these challenges.
Dr Jill Berry – Author and former headteacher
I would want to do something about the workload challenge. I think that, for a combination of reasons, we are losing good people from the profession who feel ground down by not just the amount of work that that teaching and leadership at all levels involves, but the fact that it doesn’t always seem meaningful and productive work. I think we need to ask some tough questions about what we’re spending our time on, and about what’s worthwhile. And if it doesn’t lead to the development of our learners, we’ve really got to ask ourselves whether we are using our time wisely.
I think teaching is a wonderful job. I think leadership is wonderful. But it is a job. It’s an important job, but it’s a job. And if people feel that they cannot do this job well and still have a life, it’s not that there’s something wrong not with them, there’s something wrong with it with the nature of the job. So I would really like us to tackle what are we spending our time on.
When I look back, I think I have wasted years of my life in unproductive marking, making marks on paper that students haven’t even read, let alone take take note of. I would do feedback very differently if I had my time again. And I think, in the bad old days, teachers were expected to spend a lot of time marking and on detailed planning documents, because other people were checking up on them that they were working hard enough – as in big brother – just making sure that you’re not cutting corners, rather than asking: is this marking really helping the students? Is this planning really helping the quality of the lessons? And if not, then let’s do it differently.
And I’m hoping that the current challenge and what we’ve been through in the past few months as we negotiate the Coronavirus is helpful here, because we’ve had to think very carefully about what we’re spending time on and what is helpful in terms of pedagogy, support and pastoral care. I’m hoping we won’t just go back to old habits, but that we’ll be questioning more. And using our time wisely that that’s the big thing that I would want to address in the profession.
Daniel Sabato – Deputy Head (Academic), Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls
One of my bug bears with with education is the conveyor belt approach to education: once you start education you’re then on a conveyor belt that gets you GCSEs, then A Levels, and then it’s off to university and you get your degree. I think it’s important that as a sector, we start talking more widely about what the point of learning is and about what we in schools are to do.
I think our students’ love of learning peaks really early on. When they come to us in Year 7 they are fresh, they’re desperate to just soak up secondary school and experience their new subjects and make new friends. They’re fresh and keen to get going and then that dissipates. GCSEs then suck the life out of our students, and then they come back to you in the sixth form, and you have to relearn some of the skills – certainly in History, the subject I teach – to make them better historians because GCSE really wasn’t that beneficial.
What opportunities do we create for the for our students to immerse themselves in their love of learning and the love of subjects that they’ve chosen to study in key stage four and key stage five? We need to move away from that culture of, well, if it’s not on the mark scheme, then I’m not really interested in learning about it. And that’s a real challenge.
Professor Daniel Muijs – Dean of the School of Education and Society, Academic University of Applied Sciences
So it would be to make sure that every teacher in the country has access to the best possible initial teacher education and professional development so that every child gets taught by people who are up to date and who have the subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to support them as best they can.
Oliver Caviglioli – Designer, expert in visual teaching strategies, and former headteacher
Teachers nowadays complain, quite rightly, that the thing they are shortest of is time. And when you look at the teaching professions in other countries, they not only have time, but they organise it so that the planning is collaborative, and they bring in experts to help you. So when we look at observation of teachers, it is no longer so heavily focused on the personal performance, and therefore accountability of the individual teacher, but rather it becomes an appraisal of the planning and its probable execution.
So it’s far more responsible, and it’s more mature in a way that it looks at it as a design issue. Then, of course, there’s the execution. But, most of the time, whether it is successful or not will depend on the design. And that becomes a collaborative venture because we all have different points of view and different levels of experience. And when that happens, teachers become more knowledgeable rapidly.
For example, if I went back to my language teaching, and I was co-planning a lesson with you, boy, even before I went in a classroom, I would have learned so much, and then my lesson would be far more successful because I’d be following your experience and guidelines and expertise. And then it’ll be satisfying. And I’d want to stay in the profession. And I’d be looking forward to the next planning session with you.
Clemmie Stewart – Senior Head of Prep Schools, Surbiton High School
For me, it’s about equality of outcome, in terms of how the outcomes perceived by others. And what I mean by that we can very quickly fall into the rabbit hole of thinking everyone should be aiming for a top 10 university or a Russell Group university or Oxbridge. And I think those are really incredibly impressive outcomes for certain children. But I also think that all outcomes should be tailored for each child.
There are children who will absolutely flourish in an apprenticeship, there are children who will flourish during BTECs, ones that will flourish doing a foundation in art or drama. And I think that, as an education system, we should be placing equal value on all of those outcomes, recognising that every outcome will be different for every child. And I think, as soon as that’s done, you don’t then have this hierarchy of pride, of pay, of those sorts of things. Actually, you have a system where, if we’ve done our job right, every child has every door open to them, for them to go out and achieve what they deserve to achieve. But those achievements should be recognised equally, I think.
Professor Dame Alison Peacock – Chief Executive, Chartered College of Teaching
I would remove the current Ofsted system and I would replace it with a peer review system. I would retain Ofsted just for those schools that are in tremendous difficulty where, for example, there may be safeguarding issues.
I would scale back that workforce and I would make sure that the people who worked there were real experts. But I would prefer a peer review system within schools because the vast majority of our schools are already good or better.
What one thing would you change to make education better?