In my last blog, “Is facing the front really better than facing reality?” I focussed on whether or not it was appropriate for the Secretary of State for Education to politicise pedagogy, but I didn’t question the advice that he offered. It is time to address that omission.
I cannot begin to emphasise how tired I am of the “my way or the highway” style that characterises educational pronouncements. I was a teacher for years and, by any criterion that you may wish to apply, I was a pretty good one. My students got good results in certificate examinations, often achieving better than expected and better than in other subjects. Take-up for my subject was good whenever students had to choose courses. Students and their families generally spoke well of me although that positive view was not unanimous. I was particularly fond of a massive piece of graffiti which announced that “Mr Cameron is a specky shitey poof”. I mean, seriously, such disparagement and yet I still got a “Mr”!! I also appreciated the colleague who informed me that he didn’t think I “was all that specky
There are lots of other softer indicators of my teaching credibility – former pupils who keep in touch, even one who, touchingly, left instructions that I should deliver the eulogy at her funeral, former colleagues who still seek advice and want to recount the glory days. I got promoted. I created enough of a foundation as a teacher to build a successful career. I think I have the right to advance a view on classrooms. I know I have only been teaching and running children’s services, rather than, like Gavin, running a fireplace company and selling crockery and getting sacked as Defence Secretary. but I am not going to let a little thing like that hold me back.
I sometimes had pupils sitting in rows and facing the front and that seemed to work fine. I also had times when my students sat in groups around tables, and that seemed to work fine too. I regularly ventured into the dangerous territory of the “double-horseshoe” as we called it in those heady days when the Blob took time off from Steve McQueen movies to create havoc in education, allegedly. I even, whisper it, cleared the desks right back to the sides of the room and operated in an open space. I also need to confess that I did sometimes change the configuration of the desks in the course of a lesson!! It’s only now that I realise what a lapse into heresy that was. Thank you, Gavin.
My only excuse is that I thought that the organisation of the room should be based on the purpose of the lesson. As a head of department in a large secondary school, I even toyed with the idea of having different classrooms in the department set out differently so that we could use the room most appropriate to the approach being taken. That idea became overly challenging in organisational terms so we never followed through on it. I also had colleagues in the department who had a more limited repertoire in terms of pedagogy and they never seemed to feel the need to clear their room in order to re-enact the Battle of Bannockburn with a massive board and cut-out cardboard figures( I feel a Mea Culpa might be in order here). Our approach was always to monitor how well children did in all of our classrooms and how they responded to the learning opportunities that they were offered and, if we were getting positive responses to that monitoring, we simply supported them as best we could.
We did share practice. We watched each other. We worked in teams. We took each other’s classes if we felt that young people needed a wider range of approaches. We empowered colleagues rather than constrained them. All that we asked of each other was that we reflected on our practice and, before we had read John Hattie, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hattie, indeed before he had even written anything, we insisted on asking what our impact was. If any of us were not having the impact that we should have, we knew that we had to reconsider what we were doing and make changes.
These were different times and I would be the first to recognise that there are complexities in the contemporary classroom that we did not have to face, but it wasn’t an easy shift either. I worked in large comprehensives with diverse populations. My first school was a former Junior Secondary struggling against the prestige of the former High School. We radically changed that status in just a few years and were proud of the status that the school had in the community. We worked through the miners’ strike which had a massive impact on our catchment. We dealt with gang-based violence. We even had a murder. We had drug issues. It was tough.
It was also a different time in that there didn’t seem to be a new educational treatise being published every second hour and we still thought Pisa best known for its leaning tower. The school effectiveness movement had not even reached its infancy. We were still waiting for Peter Mortimore, https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/81187181_Peter_Mortimore, and others to inform us that schools mattered. Despite this, we did engage with evidence. We went religiously to staff development, read what we could and supported subject associations and teachers’ unions, which also offered training and support.
We were curious rather than dogmatic and our children were well-served. So thank you, Mr Williamson, but no thank you. Your advice is utterly ill-founded and, I suspect, ill-informed and I hope unwelcome by. teachers. Let’s continue to build a thinking profession where we commit to our responsibility to reflect on what we do. May I suggest that you do the same?
The reality is that the government, including Mr Williamson are accountable to all of us as citizens. Don’t let him turn the tables on that.