Educating Yorkshire

Deputy head Michael Steer in The Big Issue says education should not be a political football – but put back in the hands of the experts:

Dear Michael Gove,

As an out and proud data geek, league tables are unequivocally one of my favourite things in the world. Compactly presented information troves, packed with a multitude of information that can be analysed and reanalysed to the nth degree leading to a glorious compendium of graphs and charts. Heaven. Conversely, as a teacher and West Ham United fan I also find them to be objects of absolute horror.

Schools, by their very nature, differ wildly from one town to the nextI’m utterly convinced that every school in this country is packed with dedicated, creative, intelligent and passionate staff, desperate to secure the best outcomes for those students in its care. Because teaching is a vocation, not a job. However, schools, by their very nature, differ wildly from one town to the next. Myriad factors converge to create each individual environment.

Sure, the people who work in schools share a common ideology of wanting the best outcomes for young people but the definition of ‘best outcomes’ is entirely dependent on the context of the school. This is why league tables are such a contentious topic because the layers of complexity and circumstance are stripped away and we are judged and rated as if it were a level playing field – which it most certainly is not.

If you were to visit the schools at the top and bottom of the league table you would have very different experiences but I bet the common ground would be a core team of staff working themselves insensible for the good of the students. The staff in the bottom school must just feel utterly crushed when those tables get published, which makes it very hard to see their benefit.

The whole profession was similarly crushed recently when the PISA figures were released stating that we are lagging behind on the international stage when it comes to English, maths and science. The news was met, predictably, with a large amount of coverage in the media bemoaning our education system and laying the blame at the feet of either ineffectual teachers or demonic hellbeast teenagers.

We should always be looking at ways to drive up the standards – quality of education is absolutely paramount – but we aren’t going to bring about that improvement by simply shouting at people to be better at their jobs. We need to seriously consider reform.

The key to successful learning is very simple and straightforward. It’s engagementThe key to successful learning is very simple and straightforward. It’s engagement. If someone is truly interested in something, can clearly see the purpose and relevance of it and gets to apply it, then it will stick. For example, learning to drive is significantly more difficult than learning trigonometry – the difference is that people want to drive a car much more than they want to find the size of a missing angle.

The countries that are successful share a key similarity. They have all undergone significant reform that has placed education standards front and centre. Reform that focuses on fostering a love of learning, reform that acknowledges and addresses the fact that children are individuals and as such have different ways of learning and differing support needs, reform that makes education one cohesive journey, rather than a series of loosely connected phases.

You are very vocal about the need for improvement, and in actuality, everyone working in education would agree with you but that won’t happen with a series of, seemingly, knee-jerk policy changes and a culture of blame and finger-pointing.

While education standards remain a political weapon, any improvements will always happen on a political timescale rather than an educational one. If there is a serious desire to have a ‘world class’ education system in this country, then why not remove it from the political arena?

Hand it over to the experts and the academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of education and learning, to the thousands of dedicated staff who are committed to securing the best possible outcomes for young people.

Let’s be radical, Mr Gove: try working with us instead of against us, support us instead of denigrating what we do, don’t try and pit us directly against each other when it is clearly a meaningless exercise. Sit down with us, ask our opinions, see if we can come up with a shared vision and think of creative, yet practical ways to implement it. You may be surprised by what the Enemies of Promise are capable of.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Steer,
Deputy head of Thornhill Community Academy

Married to the amazing Sarah and raising Jakey, Daniel, Amelia, Josh & Jonah in our blended family. Passionate for Jesus, social work & sport.

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