On the frontline with an academy teacher

What’s life like at the sharp end of public services? A modern foreign languages teacher tells Sarah Aston about the pros and cons of changes to the schools system

By Sarah Aston

13 Aug 2015

"I am a modern foreign languages (MFL) teacher in a large secondary mixed community academy with sixth form in a central London borough. Most of our students live in areas that are among the most socially deprived in the country, and the proportion of students eligible for free school meals is twice the national average.

Most of my day-to-day work includes teaching, planning lessons, marking students' work, tracking their progress, communicating with parents, and supporting struggling students. I also have teaching & learning responsibility (TLR) within the subject department, so a lot of my time is also spent promoting MFL within the school, mentoring newly qualified teachers in my department, organising and running MFL-related events within the school, as well as extra-curricular trips for the department.

Since 2010, the government has come under fire for seeking to expand the number of academies – first established by the Labour government in 2000 – and I can understand the trepidation felt by some teachers. As independently-run schools, academies are responsible for finances, the curriculum, and teachers' pay and conditions. This is not always a good thing for teachers or pupils.

Related articles
Frontline: head teacher
On the frontline with a learning support assistant
Frontline: Paramedic

For instance, the board of governors does not need to have a background in education, and although this does not always affect the running of an academy, at times the lack of experience can lead to hasty and misguided decisions being taken at the top level, which then does affect our day-to-day lives. 
Moreover, as academies are free to set their own contracts with their staff, teachers often do not have the same rights as those schools still managed by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). If you work at a school in an LEA, for example, when you move to teach at another LEA school you retain some of the rights you have accrued – such as maternity and sick pay – but this is not the case with academies. 
But there are some advantages to the academy structure. Having an academy status has meant we have been very well funded over recent years (although extra money is now starting to dwindle) and as academies do not have to follow National Curriculum, there is more freedom to change the syllabus. Although I have personally found that has sometimes affected the number of students studying MFL at Key Stage 3 – some are withdrawn for extra help in English literacy – I think having that freedom is a positive thing as we can take the initiative over what will benefit pupils most. 
Having had experience in local-authority funded state schools, I was pleased with the government’s decision to make languages compulsory Key Stage 2 (KS2) and to encourage secondary schools to promote languages at GCSE through the new English Baccalaureate (EBacc) league tables, which take into consideration what percentage of students achieve 5 A* - C grades at GCSE in maths, English, a humanities subject and a language. However, although I think it is positive to encourage as many students as possible to take a language, I have found that forcing GCSE students against their will can have a very negative impact on their motivation and ultimately on their achievement. This then has a considerable impact on teacher workload and stress, because we have to chase students for coursework and spend extra time with them after school helping them to catch up.
Similarly, while introducing languages at Key Stage 2 is a great idea, implementation is not consistent due to vague guidelines on what and how they should learn. This means that we have students coming into secondary school with extremely varied levels of language learning. As communication between primary and secondary schools is quite limited, some students entering secondary school may find themselves re-learning a lot of what they already know because we have to start at the beginning.
Another area I believe is good in principle, but has challenged our job significantly is targets. In general, I think there is a benefit to working towards a target, however the current measuring system – each department and teacher has a percentage target for their GCSE and A level groups – has led to many schools exploiting the grey areas in examination board rules, particularly regarding coursework or controlled assessments. 
This affects which students we are required by the school to give more support to – for instance those students on what we call the 'C/D borderline' at GCSE – so many students who are predicted to get B grades or above are not pushed enough. Furthermore, students who are unlikely to achieve a C grade or above at the end of year 11 (even with extra support) are neglected or sometimes even withdrawn from the subject last minute so that their grades do not appear on a school's examination statistics.
However, the government is introducing a new system in 2016 that focuses on individual student progress. “Progress 8” will monitor a pupil’s academic level between the end of primary school and their GCSEs – and I do think this will improve things. Likewise, changes to Ofsted recommendations so that more focus is placed on student progress rather than the style of teaching, should give teachers freedom to use techniques that suit them."

Share this page