On Mothers’ Day 2023, my colleague John Cosgrove wrote:
“In January, the town where I was previously a headteacher lost a valued member of its education community…” His longstanding colleague Ruth Perry had taken her own life in January, whilst awaiting the publication of an inspection report that had found all aspects of her school good, apart from her leadership.
She had inadvertently allowed some operationally minor, but materially important administrative procedures to lapse, and under the rules of schools inspections in England, this error resulted in an obligatory ‘inadequate’ for both the head teacher and the school as a whole.
From this point onwards, there was no point of return for Ruth, whom, we should note here, was also a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend. When the report was published, she would be summarily dismissed and replaced by a substitute caretaker whilst a new head teacher was sought.
In the interim, she was trapped within the standard OFSTED process which forbids head teachers discussing their school’s report with anyone prior to publication, including their families. Her sister, in whom she nevertheless confided, recalls: “I remember her clearly one day saying, ‘52 days and counting’.”
Teachers have widely taken to social media to express their devastation, and solidarity with Ruth’s family.
A toxic environment
England is currently wrestling with a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, due to, it is claimed ‘the scale of burnout’ created by working in toxic environments and rapidly decreasing pay, in real terms. Industrial action is currently ongoing.
Many teachers have taken to social media to report that their issue with their job do not just relate to pay.
In October last year, the teachers’ publication TES reported that there had been a rise in poor mental health and suicide risk amongst teachers. In November, the teacher wellbeing index reported that 84% of senior leaders reported feeling ‘stressed’, and 51% reported that they would not be supported if they reported their concerns to their line managers.
In February 2023, a number of secondary schools locked pupils out of their school toilets for the major part of the school day, citing poor pupil behaviour as the reason. Some children rioted (marshalled, it was claimed, via the social media site TikTok), while some of their parents argued that while they did not agree with the children’s response, the schools’ policies were far too harsh.
Jonathan Gullis, the minister for school standards, has laid the blame for teacher unrest on the leaders of the largest teachers’ union, the NEU, referring to them as “Bolshevik Bousted” and “Commie Courtney”.
This is even more bizarrely unhelpful when it is considered that he used to be a teacher himself and openly admits that he, too struggled in the role.
What lies behind such a crisis? As always, the reasons are complex and multifactorial.
The state education crackdown
England’s Department for Education (DfE) has, over the past 13 years, brought the everyday affairs of state schools increasingly under increasingly rigid national control. There has been endorsement for ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies, in which every element of children’s behaviour is controlled, from their dress to their posture and gaze orientation, to every single utterance they make in the classroom. Teacher educator Dr Ian Cushing wrote in 2020:
“Zero-tolerance/no excuses policies are theories of discipline which place responsibility on individuals to change themselves… underpinned by intimidation, incarceration and deterrence.”
There is evidence that, in some schools, teachers themselves have been bullied to maintain such regimes, through a process deemed ‘flattening the grass’.
Michael Gove came into the role of secretary of state for education in 2010 vowing to impose “a traditional curriculum”, about which concerns were voiced at the time. Nevertheless, and despite his removal in 2014 due to reported ‘toxicity’, the curriculum has also become increasingly directive from that time up to the present.
In creating the initial far-reaching changes, Gove turned to the theories of American education academic E D Hirsch, who created a list of ‘what Americans need to know’ in his 1988 book Cultural Literacy, referring almost exclusively to white, western cultural concepts. Under such a regime ‘teaching’ turns into communicating chunks of ‘cultural knowledge’ to children who are required to sit passively, absorbing diktats and regurgitating them in standard testing.
But as English teacher Xristos Curtis recently pointed out, “If we make all the knowledge about quotations, then we are not arming them to think”, a point on which he has a significant amount of colleague agreement, including from this educator on Twitter.
Further tightening control
Plans for the future include increasing government control. For example, a government-sponsored School Led Development Trust will imminently take over the leadership for teacher training across the nation. The process by which the contract was awarded is currently mired in controversy.
A further initiative involves plans for the online academy, Oak, initially set up with a one-off grant (without tender) from the DfE during lockdown, to become a permanent, publicly funded institution. However fears have been voiced by teachers that it will be used as a “Trojan horse” carrying exacting online materials that will be rigidly imposed upon every school and every teacher in England.
The contracting process for this venture is also currently a source of concern and teachers have responded angrily to such a prospect.
Teacher blaming: a worked example
The world is in a very different place to the one in which Gove was appointed as secretary of state for education. The population has been through the hugely unsettling experience of a pandemic, which fuelled ongoing changes in communication modes.
Children spent the lockdown period accessing both education and peer social interaction on smartphones and other networked devices, becoming more deeply entrenched in a culture in which the internet is the ‘go to’ place to search for information. What they find inevitably goes way beyond the information available to pre-networked generations.
Most worryingly, researchers estimate that the majority of 13 year olds have watched explicit videos containing extreme pornography. This obviously affects the way schools and teachers are required to structure effective sex education. Nevertheless, Stocksbridge and Penistone MP Miriam Cates has recently focused upon relentlessly attacking schools’ current sex education practices.
Some of what she describes in this video will shock many adults, and it is not surprising it has led to damning headlines. But what she leaves unsaid, in the same vein as her colleague Gullis, is the difficult terrain teachers must negotiate.
While there is certainly much further discussion to be had on many issues, spinning the rhetoric in this way is unhelpful to teachers, head teachers and above all, to children who, like all of us, are flawed human beings attempting to negotiate rapid, frequently unsettling changes of the current decade.
How do we move forward?
Over the past 13 years, changes to education have created a zeitgeist which relies on overbearing discipline regimes, strict control of pupil thought and behaviour, and rote learning of a narrow curriculum based on what the government of the time propose children ‘ought’ to learn.
When added to the turmoil created by pandemic and lockdown, this has created a toxic environment in teaching and has led to riots, unhappy pupils and parents, and a teacher morale, recruitment and retention problem, highlighted most tragically in the recent suicide of a head teacher under pressures of an OFSTED inspection report.
This is dysfunctional; it ruins lives such as those of Ruth Perry and her family, and will not prepare young people for a future, even more extensively networked global society. There is no simple solution; this has to emerge from honest, informed debate, and we are seeing very little of this at the moment.
As Ruth’s MP Matt Rodda says, we have some tough questions to answer. But these go far beyond one government agency, into the heart of our state education administration.
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