It’s not so bad but there’s still lots to do

In January this year, I decided I wanted to get into teaching. The first step in becoming a teacher is gaining relevant experience in schools. With this in mind, I started volunteering in a secondary academy in London at the start of February. I also visited two other schools for a day of observation, as well as volunteered with the charity IntoUniversity, one evening a week, helping secondary school children with their homework.

It’s fair to say I have learned a lot in the last two months. What has struck me though is the utter disparity between what I have observed in the schools I have been to, and what I read in the newspapers (ok, in the Guardian) about the dire state of education in this country. First of all, a disclaimer. I know that having visited three secondary schools in London does not qualify me to make a judgement on the overall picture of education in the country. All I am doing is sharing my experience in schools so far and noting that it does not seem to bear any relation to what is described in some of the “our education system is in crisis” articles I read in the Guardian (particularly in the secret teacher column).

So what are my impressions so far?

Academies versus local authority run schools

Two of the schools I have volunteered at are academies and one of them is a comprehensive run by its local authority. The comprehensive school seems to me to have a more traditional ethos, a more established feel to it whereas both of the academies, different as they are, seem to be in the process of establishing their culture and defining who and what they are. That’s not to say though that one is any worse than the other. A common thread in all three schools is the dedicated teachers I saw working with the core purpose of improving the minds of their students. I have heard lots of claims in recent days about academies being cynical market driven institutions – the labour leader has gone as far as to claim that academisation is asset stripping the education system –  but what I have seen of academies bears no relation to that.

I’m not sure forcing well performing schools into becoming academies is a particularly good idea and the whole government policy smacks of dogmatic fervour. By the same token I don’t feel that converting schools to academies is going to cause as much doom as some people are claiming.

The teaching profession in crisis

The story goes like this. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and leaving the profession in droves. What I have observed goes like this. Teachers are very busy and work long hours. The more experienced teachers tend to be able to organise their time effectively so that they don’t have to take schoolwork home with them. It’s not an easy job and some people struggle with it while others seem to thrive. Yes there is a teacher shortage, particularly in stem subjects and languages, but this has just as much to do with population growth and the setting up of new schools which has meant there is a need for a lot more teachers than before and those needs have not adequately been matched up with the number of people being trained as teachers. This problem is being addressed – there are lots of incentives to encourage graduates into teaching – but it will take time to get the desired effect.

The other thing that often gets forgotten in this whole debate is this: teaching is a privilege. It may be hard work, challenging, stressful but it is a privilege. I have only spent two months in a school but already I have got to know the personalities of some of the children and begun to build a rapport with them. When I said goodbye to everyone on the last day of term, I felt a pang. I’m going to miss those kids. It has been a privilege to work with them.

Closing the attainment gap

One of the reasons I wanted to get into teaching was that I wanted to “do my bit” towards closing the attainment gap between poor children and their wealthier counterparts. This is the big challenge in education. How do you raise standards? How do you make sure that someone off an estate in Peckham has just as much chance of going to a good university as someone at a private school? These are the big questions which should be on our minds, not the merits or demerits of academies.

From what I have experienced in schools so far, there is still a long way to go before we are even near to closing that attainment gap. There is so much work to be done. I am not an expert educator yet but here are the three key areas that I would tackle.

  1. Discipline: little or no effective teaching can take place in a disruptive classroom. Behaviour management using consistent and clear rules and sanctions should be one of the pillars of an education system. This should not be up to individual teachers to enforce but something that is embraced at all levels of the school.
  2. High expectations: you cannot achieve great things without high expectations. Be ambitious about what you want your students to do. As Tom Sherrington describes brilliantly in this post, pitch it up, aim high, expect excellence.
  3. Expert teachers: this one is a little more difficult to do but is nevertheless critical to raising the standard of education. Teachers must be experts in their field, they must have great depth and breadth of knowledge. I have been struck by the lack of mastery of the English language displayed by my son’s primary teachers over the last few years (in an Outstanding school no less). Letters to parents are often littered with spelling or grammatical errors, apostrophes in the wrong place and poor punctuation. Even the executive head of the school shows poor use of language in his yearly letter to the students. In the secondary schools too, I have noticed some teachers use very simplistic language to explain things to their students. For example, in a recent history lesson I heard a teacher ask this question “Was King John a good or a bad king?” when there was an opportunity to use much more sophisticated language than that.

So these are my first impressions based on my experience so far. Next term I start working as a teaching assistant in a prep school. It will be interesting to see how things are done in the independent sector and to compare.

My first forays into education

As you may or may not know, I am planning to train as a teacher. The process of becoming a teacher starts with obtaining relevant school experience, usually on a voluntary basis. With this in mind I set to work contacting as many local secondary schools as I could to ask for a volunteering placement. These placements are particularly hard to obtain in secondary schools (primary schools tend to need more hands on help) and therefore it was not surprising that my initial efforts yielded little response. I persevered and by the time I had contacted about 20 schools I finally got a positive response from two of them.

Then came the potentially time consuming process of obtaining DBS clearance (to check if I have any criminal convictions) which, thankfully for me, took only a week. It took a bit longer for the teachers to decide on a timetable for me and then half-term came along and delayed things a bit more but I finally started two weeks ago at a school, working 3 days a week.

The school is a recently set up academy housed in modern facilities with a high intake of children on pupil premium and for whom English is a second language. This is a fabulous opportunity for me to see first hand how an inner London school takes on the challenge of educating children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. How would I, privileged and privately educated, fit into such an environment? In my first week I was asked by a student if I was American which rather surprised me until I realised that a posh English accent sounds about as foreign to some students as an American one. In the staff room, I was put at my ease by the other teachers who have all been friendly and inclusive. I had been mindful not to disturb anyone, having heard how busy and overworked teachers are, but they have made time to chat to me about the profession and share insights with me.

So… is teaching what I really want to do and would I be any good at it? Two weeks into this experience and the preliminary answer to these questions is yes, I think so. I am still figuring things out, standing at the back of the class and not always sure of what I should be doing. Some of the children are happy to get help while others show their displeasure at my approach and one particular student covers up his book to stop me seeing his work altogether. However, when I have managed to actually help (which I hope will happen more often with time), it has felt tremendously rewarding.

One challenge for me is to be able to gather enough about the subject of the lesson to be able to contribute positively. This is not so much an issue in French lessons but history is such a wide subject that unless I have prepared with some reading about the particular period being studied, I can be as blank as the students I am supposed to be helping. I am not always sure about the correct answers to a question or what exactly it is that the teacher is looking for. For example, yesterday I got confused by a question on the board which said “How did the Africans trade?” when what was meant by the question was “What did the Africans trade?”. I only worked it out when another perplexed student put their hand up and the teacher replied with “salt, spices and books”. I may sound a bit pedantic but it seems to me that accurate language is critical. How many times have students done poorly in an exam because they have failed to properly read the question? By the same token, questions need to be absolutely clear and unambiguous in their language. I still remember several instances where my son returned home with some homework which I read over and over again without understanding what was being asked. I had to guess the teacher’s meaning by asking my son about what he had done in school that week and working out the most likely option.

Disruptive behaviour is a big issue and I have witnessed how this can totally derail a lesson but interestingly I have seen the same students behave very well in other lessons. Children can smell weakness in adults like vampires can smell blood. They will push the boundaries whenever they can. I have been fortunate enough to be able to observe three history teachers with varying degrees of experience ranging from the head of the department to a newly qualified teacher. Unsurprisingly the NQT has had the most problems with behaviour management. What has been interesting for me is reflecting through my observation on where he might be going wrong (such as body language, use of his voice, pace of the lesson, not following through with sanctions). What’s more, it has been interesting to see how senior staff have been supporting him and the different strategies that have been tried out from one day to the next. I’m sure he’ll nail it fairly soon and it will have been hugely instructive for me to witness the process.

This week I was given the opportunity to visit another school in the more affluent outer suburbs of London as part of the government’s School Experience Programme. I spent a full day there observing a total of five history lessons ranging from year 7 to year 12 students. I was struck by the difference in culture from one school to another. I noticed that the students in this Ofsted Outstanding school had a higher level of literacy than the ones at the school where I am working. This enabled the teachers to pack a lot more into each lesson and the pace was noticeably faster.

I am told that by the time middle class children (for want of a better term) start school, they will have learned about 12,000 words whereas the more socially disadvantaged children will have only learned about 5,000. This word deficit has significant implications for learning. In Daniel Willingham’s book “Why children don’t like school” which I am currently reading, he explains how inefficient our working memory is for thinking and how dependent we are on being able to retrieve information from our long-term memory in order to work things out. In effect, the more knowledge you have stored in your long-term memory, the more you are able to learn new concepts. If you come to school with half as many words stored in your brain as others, chances are you will learn a lot more slowly. Before long, you will find the gap between you and the others has grown as they speed ahead of you in their learning. It’s terribly unfair! This is why there is such a big focus on improving literacy in schools. At my son’s primary school reading is the holy grail. And I have noticed too in the secondary academy where I volunteer how children are encouraged to read whenever possible, not just in English lessons.

Having been to a higher achieving school within a more affluent constituency, would that be a preferable environment for me to work in? Not one bit! I was glad to make my way back to the multi-cultural neighbourhood that is my home and the next day I looked forward to seeing the familiar faces of the students I had grown rather fond of.