In calling for better teaching and better leadership in secondary schools, OFSTED and its political masters are failing to recognise the fundamental problem facing formal education.
There have been three interesting contributions to the ed-tech debate by the BBC in recent days. Yesterday, 10 December (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 2:17:38), Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw complained on the Today programme that too many secondary schools were providing an inadequate standard of education, due mainly to poor quality teaching and leadership. Today, the Today programme covered the problem that schools are having in teaching the new Computing curriculum (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 02:39:00). The two items are connected in that they both demonstrate that the education service continues to fail to recognise its own fundamental problems. It also fails to recognise the importance of the message in this year’s Reith Lectures, given by Atul Gawande, ostensibly about medicine (listen to lecture 2, The Century of the System).
The problem identified by Ofsted is summarised by BBC interviewer Sarah Montague as follows:
Almost a third of secondary schools are not good enough and too many are not getting any better (02:17:40).
Sir Michael blames this situation on a number of factors: poor transition from Primary to Secondary; a poor learning culture; poor discipline; inadequate provision for the most and least able; poor careers education. But as Ms Montague points out, all these are symptoms rather than causes of the problem and she presses Sir Michael on whether there is any difference between academies and Local Authority schools in this respect.
No, we are seeing under-performance across the different types of school. Its not the status or the type of school that’s the issue, its the quality of the leadership and the leadership of the culture and the teaching in the school that is the biggest issue.(02:20:03)
Saying that the quality of education depends on the quality of teaching is, surely, to state the self-evident. More difficult is to suggest what can be done about it—particularly when it is difficult to recruit enough suitably qualified teachers to do the job, particularly in challenging schools. And so OFSTED continues to wag its finger at teachers and teachers continue to feel put upon and no-one comes up with a sustainable, pragmatic solution.
This is the same problem, placed in a general context, that was raised in a second Radio 4 Today item, broadcast this morning, on the difficulty of teaching the new Computing Curriculum. As Sarah Montague summarizes the problem,
One term in and teachers are struggling (02:39:07)…schools are being encouraged to reach out to the tech industry and be creative in the way that they deliver this new subject. But many are finding the changes tough. (02:39:19).
The main organisation tasked with addressing this problem is Computing for Schools which has been given £3 million so that:
teachers who contact them are given guidance on implementing the new curriculum (20:40:09).
The Head of CAS, Simon Peyton-Jones, came on the programme to complain that CAS is “badly under-resourced”, while the government refuses to increase its funding on the grounds that:
We [already] give money to schools for teacher training.
Mr Peyton-Jones says that these budgets are only sufficient for regular training requirements, not for the extra training required for
the step-change that happens when you introduce essentially a completely new subject—so you are training teachers, not only in subject knowledge, which they don’t have, many of them, but also in pedagogy and assessment techniques. That is a big, big change (20:40:35).
Well, the requirement for new subject knowledge is certainly a big change. Teachers’ common lack of understanding of pedagogy and assessment techniques might strike the average Radio 4 listener as a little more surprising (though it has already been covered in this blog in Why teachers don’t know best). What no-one seems to be questioning is the assumption, being made by Simon Peyton-Jones in the particular case of the Computing curriculum, just as much as by Sir Michael in the overall context of Secondary education, that the only answer on the table is better performing teachers.
Is it really the most efficient way to introduce a new subject to give guidance to thousands of different teachers, many of whom start from a position of knowing very little either about the subject or about how to teach it, each working in their spare time and with almost no resources, to “be creative” and “implement the curriculum”? Would it not be better to invite a small number of well resourced organisations, operating in a competitive environment and drawing on appropriate levels of funding and expertise, to develop world-class programmes of study that would put into the hands of teachers the tools that they need to “deliver this new subject” to their students?
All the research shows that what really matters to students is good teaching. As I suggest above, this strikes me as self-evident. What is almost always assumed in the next sentence, is that better teaching means better teachers. This is not only not self evident—it is false. The outputs of any service depend on a combination of the skill of the worker and the effectiveness of the technology, the “tools of the trade”, that the worker can use. Not even the most skilled carpenter can produce fine furniture with bent and rusty tools.
The assumption that that every practitioner must do the pedagogical equivalent of whittling his/her own tent-pegs throws us back onto a desperately inefficient model of resourcing, equivalent to a pre-industrial, craft-based economy. Yet this is exactly the model of resourcing which we appear to be stuck with in education, bedeviled as it has been for thirty years of home-produced worksheets. What is needed, both in order to improve the quality of teaching across the sector and particularly in order to support the delivery of new subjects, is not more guidance (in which the profession is already drowning) but the “tools of the trade” which will help them to deliver good teaching on the front line. And by “tools of the trade”, I mean not just information-bearing textbooks but methods (which I believe will for the most part be mediated by digital means) of helping teachers to manage the processes, feedback cycles and activities that form the very stuff of instruction.
At this point you might like to listen to Dr Atul Gawande, in his second Reith lecture, argue that we are living in “the century of the system”. It is process control that makes the difference in large, modern organisations delivering complex services. When we hail doctors and nurses (or teachers for that matter) as heroes and heroines, we are implicitly acknowledging that we are asking them to operate in dysfunctional working environments, characterised by poor process control. However much we might applaud heroism, it is in the long-term better for everyone if our services do not require anyone to be a hero for them to work properly.
In education, our lack of process control reflects our poor understanding of process in the first place. Often this is due to the failure of academic educationalists to produce well-evidenced theories of education, resorting to post-modernist posturing instead. In many cases, we deny that education is a process at all, certainly not one that aims to deliver defined and measurable outcomes. We shut teachers, often with little subject knowledge, into a room with 30 students and tell them to “implement the curriculum”. And when they fail to cope, OFSTED comes along and tells them that they must try harder. But the failure is not one of effort or individual professionalism: it is one of inadequate process control—a sort of control that is provided in other sectors by digital technology.
This point is routinely ignored by the educational establishment. I spoke to Sir Michael after he launched OFSTED’s data dashboard at Policy Exchange in February 2013, suggesting that OFSTED should report on the effectiveness of the programmes of study and the resources for learning being used by the schools that it inspected. He replied that this would be outside their scope because OFSTED is tasked to report on the effectiveness of the service being provided by the teachers—the personnel. If this answer was correct (which I somewhat doubt), then OFSTED is locked into a false assumption, that the only way of improving educational provision is by recruiting or training better teachers. For such reasons do bureaucracies perpetuate the fallacies on which their own existence is predicated.
This is an argument that I have been making on this blog over the last couple of years. If you want to drill down into more of the argument, you might be interested in:
- Education’s coming revolution, based on the 1971 book Resources for Learning by the Director of the Nuffield Institute’s programme, which argues tthat the fundamental problem in education is the shortage of suitably qualified teachers and the preservation of a pre-industrial, craft model of teaching;
- Textbooks for the digital age, arguing that we should not be looking back to the last generation of textbooks to solve the “death by worksheet” syndrome, but forwards to the next generation of digital ed-tech;
- It’s the technology, stupid!, on why we continue to perpetuate the fallacy that the technology doesn’t matter;
- Round-table with Ian Livingstone at Computing Magazine, in which I oppose Ian Livingstone’s restatement of the popular saw that teachers don’t need to be subject experts, if only they act as facilitators;
- Is Michael Gove a modern day Hercules? (i.e. is his reputation built on myth?) on why structural reform will not be enough to address the underlying problem with education.
For those of my readers who are familiar with this argument, I must apologise for repeating it again in this post. All that has changed (and therefore the only justification that I have for writing this further post) is that the passage of time is beginning to reveal the inadequacy of many of the assumptions made by Michael Gove about how to achieve change. Maybe also, little by little, it is beginning to dawn on people that what makes the difference to efficient service provision is better control of process, not the heroism (not even the professionalism) of individual operators.