The good, the bad and the struggling – which are you?

In last Friday’s edition of ‘Schools Week’, Steve Mastin, Chair of the Conservative Education Society, engaged in a debate with Mary Bousted about the future of Ofsted.  You can read the article here.  Mastin suggested that what is needed in schools is “a performance management system where bad teachers are got rid of, struggling teachers are supported, good teachers are left to thrive.”

I remembered that a few years ago (2011 when I checked), I wrote a piece for the Guardian Teacher Network following comments from a Sutton Trust report and from the then Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw about how many poor teachers were operating in our schools, which I called ‘It’s too simplistic to condemn ‘poor’ teachers’.  Rereading it seven years on, I realise that my views haven’t changed.  In fact, given the worsening teacher recruitment and retention challenge, the idea that poor practitioners can simply be ‘got rid of’, when there do not appear to be hordes of potentially outstanding teachers clamouring at the gates, seems even more naive.  Dylan Wiliam’s exhortation to ‘Love the one you’re with’ has never seemed more pertinent.

Equally problematic is the suggestion that it is possible to separate the current teaching profession into the categories of bad/struggling/good.  This does not chime with my experience of education – based on working in six different schools over 30 years, and a further 8 years working with teachers and leaders in schools across the UK and overseas.  I can remember, as a teacher, teaching poor lessons and good lessons, and lessons which had their inspired bits and their disasters (one reason why observing a lesson and giving it a simple overall rating has always seemed bizarre to me).  We now accept, I hope, that the effectiveness of any lesson can only be gauged over time when we have information to establish how well the pupils have remembered, understood and applied what they have learnt.  And pupil success (or lack of it) is influenced by a significant range of factors, not all within the individual teacher’s control.  As I explained back in 2011, some teachers are successful with some classes and not with others; they may have good days and not such good days; one leader’s estimation of the effectiveness of a teacher may not concur with another leader’s judgement; some professionals are capable of being far more successful in a different context, perhaps with better leadership – the categorisation seems fraught with complications.

And then there is the issue of basic human rights and the need to treat everyone with respect and dignity, whatever their professional shortcomings – ‘got rid of’ makes me bristle.  I accept there are those who are perhaps not cut out for teaching (though I always suggest that teachers who are out of their depth and perhaps recognise they are ineffective, or just teachers who are unhappy, try a change of school/context before they walk away from the profession – see here.)  I have known a handful of lazy teachers, of teachers who weren’t temperamentally suited to the job and who had little interest in building their skills and improving their practice.  But this is a very small number, and I have known and worked alongside a significant number of teachers since I joined the profession in 1980.  As a leader I have helped to ‘counsel out’ some of these, and I have been involved in both capability and disciplinary processes, which I have always tried to see through in as humane and sensitive a way as possible.  I do accept that our schools and the pupils they serve deserve better.

However, the vast majority of education professionals I have met over the last five decades have been committed to improving their practice – certainly every good teacher I have ever known has been determined to become a better teacher.  We are all works in progress – why are we so quick to judge, and in some cases to condemn?  Which brings me to my last point.

Just about everyone struggles at times.  To quote Dylan Wiliam again, ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better’.  Those who are strong can be supported and constructively challenged to be even stronger.  Shouldn’t it be less about our starting point and more about our commitment to a destination – working to achieve our professional best?  So ‘leaving good teachers to thrive’ seems inappropriate to me, too.  Talented teachers should be valued and part of that involves investing in their ongoing development – and not just in terms of promoting them into leadership roles which increasingly may take them out of the classroom.  We need everyone to commit to the development of our professional practice.

What do you think?

Photo montage: John Berry

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