As a newly qualified teacher I was shown my classroom and a store cupboard with a selection of textbooks and, thereafter the curriculum was a matter of negotiation with colleagues and good luck. Simultaneously both an educational paradise and hell!
Then after just a couple of years the government introduced negotiations to establish a national curriculum and the 30 years since have seen a procession of centrally-scripted measures:
- A shelf of 10 national curriculum ring binders for every teacher in the country to present the first version
- QCA schemes of work for every year group and every subject
- Literacy and numeracy initiatives with lesson kits for every teacher
- Continuously changing assessment regimes with varying degrees of minutiae and political intent
All have had their day and had their millions of pounds spent on them. Careers, reputations and businesses have been built on these edifices and lots of children have benefited from those riding the tide of wave after wave of prescriptive practice. But nearly all have had but a passing influence. Why?
Mostly, I suggest because people have routinely made the means more important than the ends. Almost all of these initiatives and policy phases started out with the noble aim of improving educational outcomes and each defined the method (means) by which their contribution should be made. But very quickly, either through poor leadership or inadequate administration, adherence to a particular method became the be-all-and-end-all and people lost sight of the initial purpose. At the points when individual circumstances or contexts would suggest a tailored or nuanced approach, professional pragmatism was all too often sacrificed on the altar of compliance.
And so we see teachers, leaders, advisers, trainers, consultants, and publishers demanding quite specific classroom practice, be that in literacy methods, Asian mathematics schemes or systematic phonics. All of these have their place, especially to help poor teachers improve, but they are just a means. They should be seen as tools in the hands of a skilful teacher to be adopted and adapted to meet each child’s needs, and strategies to be used by wise leaders.
In these years of continuous educational reform, the essence of good teaching hasn’t changed. It was the same in the sometimes chaotic curriculum creativity of the 1970s as it has been in the defined rigidity of the most scripted initiative… and it’s simple.
- Get to know every child or young person entrusted to you. What makes them tick, what are their motivations, dreams and fears. What are their special interests and talents. What are their strengths, what are they struggling with?
- With each pupil agree ambitious and aspirational ideas of what you will achieve in your shared time together this year.
- Understand in exact detail learning journey you will travel together with each student, exactly where you’re heading and a sensible path to follow. But then we open and ready for diversions, blockages and shortcuts.
- Being relentless in your support for each child and do everything in your power to help them make progress. Half-hearted teachers contribute to half-interested learners who become half-fulfilled young people. Pursue progress with a passion.
- And HAVE FUN! In recent years I have seen just too many teachers’ eyes that have dulled, but even then somewhere deep inside there is still a sparkle that ignites when you talk about children instead of policy and administration.
Cast your mind back to some of your own school special moments. I’m pretty confident they weren’t about a technically well-crafted lesson. I’m pretty sure it will be about a special teacher who connected with you, knew what you fired up and then went the extra mile with you. Or it might be a most amazing learning experience that inspired you, usually magical or humorous in some way.
We must make our children’s education fun! Without it we consign their most important 12-15 years to a box labelled ‘wasted opportunity’ and we deny very truth that teaching truly is the best job in the world.
by Peter Chilvers, SDSA