By Tim Fish

19 Dec 2012

A primary school teacher laments the loss of centralised standards.


I am a teacher working in a primary school that educates children from reception class up to year six (ages 10-11). We teach the whole curriculum, but I also took on the role of geography subject leader. This involves looking at how that topic is taught across all the year groups, planning the school’s scheme of work, and organising resources.

This is best achieved by following the National Curriculum, but that doesn’t exist at the moment as it’s currently being re-drafted. There are no guidelines for us, so we do the best we can. Most teachers are using the old National Curriculum, or making educated guesses about what the new draft curriculum might contain, to inform their teaching.

This looming change in National Curriculum is yet more evidence that education is too politicised. It needs to be more independent of government and political swings. When one side is saying there should be a pupil premium and another saying there should be a focus on something entirely different, agendas keep changing and that’s not to the advantage of the children or schools.

I studied the science of education, and it is very apparent to me that some ideas in education are being brought in without a scientific methodology or any evidence of their effectiveness. Teaching is too often seen as an art, not a science. Some schemes, such as the ‘Big Write’, are very good, but there are many private companies and organisations bombarding schools with ideas for initiatives that don’t always appear to have a very strong evidence base.

One of the positive changes introduced by the last government when I became a teacher was the application of Primary National Strategies. They wanted to raise standards in numeracy and literacy after an international study found that the UK was low in international league tables. It involved an investment of huge amounts of resources into training; redeployment of teachers; and changing the way lessons were taught and structured. It was very prescribed, right down to the lesson plan, but this was our bread and butter. We were told what the school would be teaching to improve literacy and numeracy and how we’d teach it, with objectives for each term and daily lesson plans. Teaching was very centralised under the strategies – the exact opposite of what we have now, which is no prescription at all since the strategies were scrapped in 2010. This makes schools more vulnerable to picking initiatives that aren’t proven to make a difference.

Another change came in 2005, with the introduction of 10 per cent non-contact time. It gave teachers about one morning or afternoon per week out of the classroom to catch up on planning, preparation and assessment work. Another teacher, a coach from a local sports centre or a higher learning teaching assistant would take over for you.

Personally, I would prefer to be free of the paperwork rather than the teaching, because we still end up working late at home to do all the work required. It is very intense. Teachers start at 7.30am with preparation, then the teaching days last from 8.45am through to 3.30pm. After that we continue, often until 10pm or later, in order to get everything done. Teachers rarely go sick because it impacts on a lot of people: your colleagues and children. We get 12 weeks’ holiday, but a lot of that time is spent catching up on work or doing day-to-day jobs.

I also believe that targets are very important, because they give teachers and children something to aim for. While there is pressure on teachers to meet them, my impression is that teachers don’t know how to achieve them because their training isn’t informed or evidence-based. There is a lot of demand, but no strategy in place to successfully achieve the objectives.

We need to reform how we use Teaching Assistants (TAs) too. Schools might have had one each 20 years ago, but now there’s probably one in every class, at least. This is a huge manpower increase, but they are not being used effectively. I recently went on a course that gave us advice on how to better deploy their labour. It’s important that we plan for how to use TAs in our lessons, rather than them just hovering in the classroom.

The rhetoric and instructions coming from Michael Gove seem to be bizarre and out of touch. I can understand that it’s important to recite poetry, and it’s nice that we’re looking for awe and wonder and Christian values, but I’m sceptical of the difference this makes in the classroom. It doesn’t help when he says that teachers aren’t stressed and seems to be trying to create an education system that imitates upper class values; one suitable for Eton, not the emotional and vocational skills needed by those children growing up in a city estate.

Gove should try and maintain a class of 30 children for a week. Those who’ve done so are blown away by what goes on, how much work there is, and how passionate teachers are. Our efforts on the frontline feel far removed from the Department for Education.

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