By Suzannah.Brecknell

13 May 2014

A teacher whose school has become an academy enjoys new freedoms – but not from central reforms

“I’m a geography teacher in a boys’ grammar school in the South of England. This was my first job after qualifying as a teacher, and I’ve been here for four years. 

Last year, we became an academy. It hasn’t changed much as far as teaching goes, but has given us more flexibility in how we run the school. One impact has been on my role as Duke of Edinburgh coordinator. Under the county council, there were a lot of boxes that you needed to tick – risk assessment practices, things like that – but as an academy we have more control over those things so we can now be more proportional. We still have a duty to keep students safe, but we have more scope to define our own process: that’s a positive change. As an academy, we also set our own pay and conditions, and the school is currently consulting with staff about a new pay and progression system. It’s similar to what’s currently in place, but it will be much more target-driven, and more evidence- and performance-based. This is similar to the changes which government wants to introduce across all schools – and these changes are part of the reason why some unions have chosen to strike. 

In principle, I think focusing on evidence and performance is a brilliant idea, but the reality is that the changes are putting a lot of stress on the teaching profession. I’m at a good school where morale is high, but in some schools I think these changes, rather than incentivising teachers, could have the opposite effect: if they’re already putting in 60 hours a week and don’t think they’re going to meet that kind of target, they’ll wonder whether there’s any point in even trying. 

Another change the government wants to introduce is longer school days: I had a discussion about this with some students recently, discussing the pros and cons of a 10-hour school day. If it’s done properly, it could work very well to drive up standards – but it’s not as simple as increasing the amount of time in school. How is that extra time going to be used? Is it going to be worthwhile having kids learning for eight hours a day? Probably not: they’re going to be completely exhausted and unable to concentrate. But if those hours were used for the extracurricular side of things, the key employability skills, then potentially it could work well. It needs to be done properly, with consideration of the impact on other areas such as funding and family life.
One policy which I think was poorly implemented was the decision to stop Building Schools for the Future (BSF) funding. Our school had secured BSF money, but work hadn’t begun when the new government decided to cut it in 2010. So we still have our old building, and there had been very little money invested in it because we were planning on building a new school. We’re now making up for it with a bodge job. We’re increasing numbers in years seven and eight and we need to make provision for that, but we’re having to rush through buildings that are more temporary than they should be. We’ve gone through traditional funding routes to build those extensions, but we were starting from scratch. That’s not to say that I think the BSF approach was brilliant, or that the decision to cut was wrong in itself, but there should have been more support to help schools access other types of funding quickly when that scheme was cut.

The government is currently reforming GCSEs and A-Levels – both the assessments, and the curriculums we teach. Ofqual has just announced the new assessment arrangements and structures for geography GCSEs, but while their review was going on it did make our jobs harder. We don’t just start preparing students for GCSE assessment in Year 10; we start teaching them skills geared towards those examinations when they enter secondary school. So in my mind any change in those assessments should be a long-term project: changes to the grading system or the content will take six or eight years to implement properly in a school. In terms of the ongoing geography curriculum review, as a general rule there is an increasing focus in many subjects about the specific content, the knowledge students are expected to have – but I believe that is superficial. We’re preparing students for the future, and the content of a curriculum is often largely irrelevant as far as employability goes. The real focus should be the skills that people gain in manipulating that knowledge – that is what they will need to succeed in the future. It’s always a dilemma in teaching: in principle, what you’re trying to do is engage students and get these critical understanding, high-order thinking skills, but the reality is that you’re being assessed on how your students answer exam questions. It’s all very well if they can synthesise information, but they’re being assessed on whether they know the difference between “describe” and “explain”. That’s the beauty of Key Stage 3– the first three years of secondary school: there are no formal assessments, so you can take it in whichever direction you see fit. Whatever happens later on, I would certainly counsel against adding any formal assessments to those early years of secondary school.” 

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