Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Some questions for the College of Teachers

So, plans for the College of Teachers are gathering pace. It increasingly looks like it’s going to be a thing, whether teachers want it or not. I’m not against a College per se, but I do have some questions which I think need answering before we go too much further or invest any more than the £5 million already handed over by the government.

1. What is it actually for?

I’ve read lots of speculation about what role the College of Teachers might have from being a body to represent teachers interests to a regulatory institution which invents and enforces standards it believes constitute good teaching. Seeing as we already have teaching unions, I’m not sure how much we need the former and I’m definitely against the latter. So, what’s it actually going to do? No one, not even its own trustees, seems sure. All we have so far are vague statements like, “a vision that things should be better for those working in education”. Dame Alison Peacock, the newly appointed CEO, says she wanted the job because she “passionately believe[s] that the way to provide the highest quality experiences for learners is by empowering and supporting teachers, so that they can be the best they can be.”

We really need to know what problem is being solved and what specifically the College is meant to improve. Clearly every wants things to be better for those working in education and for teachers to be empowered and supported, but we need more than wishes and good intentions.

2. How will we know if it’s successful?

It’s important to know in advance how the work of the College will make things better for teachers and how this improvement will be measured. How confident can we be that there’s a meaningful way to measure whether the College will have made things better (or worse) than they were before?Is it OK to simply gauge success of membership metrics? The proposed target for membership is, I understand, 5000 after the first year of operation. This would be about 1% of teachers. Is this enough? We – human beings generally, but teachers in particular – are notoriously biased in favour of novelty so we need to be sure that the answer as a lot better than ‘this feels right’.

3. When is the improvement expected to be apparent?

If the College is committed to “promoting teaching as an evidence-informed profession, while putting classroom teaching at the heart of research” when will the improvements promised by this well-intentioned catch-all be obvious? It seems wrong to commit to an open-ended period where a golden age is always round the next corner – we could end up waiting for ever. So we need to know when and how the College’s progress will be evaluated before any more public funds are committed.

4. What will happen if it isn’t successful?

If the College doesn’t really get off the ground – specifically, if teachers don’t join – at what point will those in charge admit defeat? Will they publicly acknowledge that things haven’t worked out? Is there a contingency plan? That’s a lot of talk about optimism, but if optimists are left unchallenged their enthusiasm can easily become unscrupulous. Much better to hope for the best but plan for the worst. One sensible strategy might be to conduct a pre-mortem before things go any further.

5. What evidence is there that investing in the College is likely to benefit teachers?

As far as I’m aware, there isn’t any beyond the observation that other professions have professional bodies representing their interests and that they seem quite happy. If there is evidence, I’d love to see it and check where it comes from and whether the findings are secure.

6. Is the expertise of teachers being acknowledged?

If we want teachers to join the College is it good enough to say, what we’re doing is in your best interests? In fairness, those involved in setting up the College have been very keen to get teachers involved at every stage of the process but this is not a grass-roots movement that teachers themselves have been pushing for, it’s the brainchild of those who believe this will be best for teachers. There’s a lot of talk about ‘setting teachers free’ but free from what? Teachers are controlled by school leaders, Ofsted, exam boards, unions, the DfE; how will the College set teachers free from these bodies? And, more to the point, should it? If we impose a College on teachers then it might end up being yet another institution issuing proclamations which ordinary teachers must struggle to conform to. How will this acknowledge teachers’ expertise?

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not against the College of principle, but these concerns ought to be addressed. I’m not trying to derail the College – if it’s going to happen I’d much rather it was successful than unsuccessful. To that end, I’d be very happy to take part in a discussion in which these questions were addressed and remain hopeful that those leading the College have all these issues in hand. But until I’m convinced I remain sceptical that the College is actually in the interests of teachers.

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