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GEOFF BARTON: Trust teachers to focus on teaching

A Personal View
A Personal View

So here we are again. Election fever is raging once more. Or perhaps, if you’re immune to it all, it’s not so much a fever as an irksome political sniffle.

In education we seem to be hardwired for politics. That’s because education policy – what we teach, how we’re supposed to teach it, and the qualifications that ensue – can change every time a new Education Secretary clambers up the steps of the Whitehall signal-box and starts pulling levers.

So at this election, five turbulent years on, much is different from the last one. Here’s a flavour of how education’s tectonic plates have shifted.

GCSEs have been overhauled and now have new content and a bewildering 9-1 grading system. A-levels are about to change. A/S exams exist in a strange no-man’s-land of uncertainty. National curriculum levels have been scrapped and the curriculum itself been replaced with a new version, with academies and free schools at liberty to ignore it.

Performance tables have been tinkered with so many times we have lost track. The inspectorate, Ofsted, has changed direction 12 times since 2010.

Meanwhile, some schools have converted to academies and others have been taken over by voracious educational ‘chains’. Local authorities have withered, free schools have briefly spluttered into life, and, oh yes, an ambitious Education Secretary has also changed – unceremoniously despatched to the damage-limiting backwaters of the Whip’s Office.

So, yes, in education we are used to change.

But it’s worth noting that this high-octane frenzy all stems from a single Education Act published at the start of the last parliament in 2010. It was called, portentously, The Importance of Teaching.

I mention it because it promised a lot. Most importantly it said teaching would be redefined as a high status profession free from political tinkering.

So as we stare the next election in the eye, it isn’t a bad idea to take that ambitious title – The Importance of Teaching – and to look at where the recent whirligig of new initiatives has left us.

Last week the Association of School and College Leaders – the secondary union that represents more than 17,000 UK heads and senior leaders – reported a deepening recruitment crisis in teaching.

They said that schools were facing an unprecedented shortage in subjects such as geography, religious education and foreign languages with some schools receiving less than a handful of applications. This is on top of difficulties in recruiting teachers in core subjects, especially mathematics.

The association also pointed out that the problem was worse in some areas – notably here in the East of England. We know from experience this is true, and that the further east we head from Hertfordshire through Cambridgeshire and out towards coastal Suffolk, the tougher teacher recruitment becomes.

It’s why locally many of us are working together to train our own potential teachers, to make stronger links with universities like Cambridge, University Campus Suffolk and Essex, and to encourage our most talented students to think about teaching as a great future career for them.

After all, if the past five years have taught us anything it’s that many of the endless reforms to the curriculum and qualifications haven’t done much to improve things in the classroom. The risk is that they may have been a distraction.

So what’s really needed is a new breed of Education Secretary – one who doesn’t want to have his or her career judged by the speak-your-weight machine emphasis on the quantity of new policies and who instead leaves the profession to focus on the quality of teaching.

What we need is a political determination to trust teachers, rather than flogging the system with so many reforms that teachers’ heads are spinning at the prospect of the next initiative.

Change happens, of course. But in education some things never change – such as the simple brilliance of young people being wonderfully taught. It’s what we might call ‘the importance of teaching’. And it matters at this election more than ever.