Politicians urged to dial down ‘military’ rhetoric about schools

Declaring war on mediocrity in schools is unhelpful, says former curriculum boss Mick Waters.
Declaring war on mediocrity in schools is unhelpful, says former curriculum boss Mick Waters.
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POLITICIANS have been urged to dial down the rhetoric about schools amid claims it leads to increased workload which drives teachers out of the profession.

Former curriculum boss Mick Waters criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for declaring an all out war on mediocrity when announcing plans to turn coasting schools into academies.

Prof Waters was speaking at this year’s Northern Rocks education conference, in Leeds, which saw hundreds of teachers and experts discussing the sector.

Panellists were asked to what extent Government rhetoric was contributing to problems with teacher recruitment and retention.

Prof Waters highlighted the “war on mediocrity” as part of an increasing trend of politicians using military language when talking about schools.

The former curriculum director at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority described it as “ghastly.”

He added; “Declaring war is what you do to countries who are doing terrible things. It is not something a senior public servant should be saying about other public servants.”

Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said that he believed rhetoric by Government ministers led to increases in workload as head teachers over reacted to it.

He said the pressure of workload was not affecting recruitment as people outside the profession “don’t believe it until they see it.” He told delegates at the event, at the Leeds Beckett University Headingley campus, that the real issue was teacher retention.

He said every time the Government came out with tough talking rhetoric it would lead to a head teacher creating more work for teachers.

Jonathan Simons, the head of education for the centre right think tank Policy Exchange said that a shortfall in teacher recruitment was linked to a growing economy.

He said there was an established “counter cyclical” pattern in which as the economy grows the number of people applying to become teachers falls with the opposite happening when the economy is doing badly.

He said that education secretaries in the past two Governments have consistently talked up teachers.

Former Ofsted director Mike Cladingbowl said the answer was to pay teachers more while author Melissa Benn said she could not understand why the status of teachers was not as high in this country as elsewhere.

Former teacher, education researcher and journalist Laura McInerney said she did not believe people were put off the profession by ministers statements.

She added: “I think teachers are made of tougher stuff than this. If people are put off by a few comments by Michael Gove how would they cope with a year nine pupil having a go at them.”

She suggested that the problem with teacher recruitment was because the training model through the Schools Direct system had become too fragmented and too fiddly to attract enough graduates.

It was reported earlier this year that the number of recruits to teacher training programmes were down more than 5,000 compared with the previous year.

The Government has missed its target for recruiting trainee primary school teachers for the past three years.

The panel also discussed need for reform to school accountability through testing, exams and league tables.

Pressure of meeting Government GCSE or Standard Assessment Test targets in primaries has been blamed for schools focusing on the test at the expense of a broader education.

Mr Simons said he believed the problem with the current system was using the same set of tests to measure both how a pupil is progressing and how effective a school is.

“That is what leads to schools trying to game the system, to the endless revision and the narrowing of the curriculum. We need to separate the two out,” he said.

The Government is reforming the way in which secondary schools are measured in league tables. Instead of the main measure being the number of pupils achieving five A* to C grades including English and maths a new system is being introduced measuring pupils’ progress and attainment across eight subjects.