We’re chasing very different targets.

The conversation took place on a balcony in the south of France near Perpignan this summer. The view was beautiful and I’m pretty sure we enjoying some local wine. My husband and I, both teachers at a smallish, minor public school in the home counties, were chatting with our very good friend, a head teacher of a large successful state school in a seaside town. He told us that a prestigious local public school had approached him offering partnership and he wasn’t keen. He paused and both husband and I in that moment quickly ran over in our minds what we thought our friend could get out of this offer…

True the small class sizes couldn’t be shared. I can give my GCSE and A level classes possibly double the essay writing practice because the class sizes mean marking is manageable. We can keep better tabs on under performing kids. No KS3 and GCSE classes are shared between teachers as is common the state sector so we have the chance to really know the kids we teach.

However, parents pay the exorbitant public school fees as much for other expensive benefits, more easily shared:

In sport we have specialist coaches of national and even Olympic standard. Our facilities are top notch, extensive and beautifully maintained by a dedicated team of grounds staff. We put out more than 35 teams a week in a wide range of sports and our teachers (though mostly ordinary academic subject teachers) have enormous coaching experience. In some sports we regularly win national championships. Excellence in sport is prioritised as is getting every single child, even those in the U14Fs, involved in sport to a good level.

In music we have a department of 10 professional musicians, many of whom perform regularly, some at international level. They have a dedicated music school and organise perhaps 15 concerts for school musicians a term as well as inviting nationally and internationally recognised performers to the school, around eight times a year. There is choral music to a superb level and a director of music who knows how to get a whole school to sing its heart out together in chapel.

I know how hard state schools find it to get some specialist teachers in subjects like physics. We have well qualified specialists. Then there is our enrichment programme that includes high profile visiting speakers with fascinating stories to tell. Enrichment also comes from the obsessively well organised Oxbridge programme. How many students get into good universities is a the kind of measure our parents are interested in. We make sure our kids get the very best advice and help to maximise their chances.

I know that if a local school approached us asking for help starting a rugby team we would be happy to get a partnership going. If they wanted their music students to get to some of our concerts or do a joint choir we would be interested. Once a partnership had started we have so much to share. You want advice on how we maximise our students’ chances at top universities? Sure thing!

So what did our friend reluctantly come up with? Perhaps this prestigious public school could help them with ‘inclusion of FSM children’?

YOU WHAT???

He said something like that anyway. My husband and I didn’t even recognise the terminology. Whatever he had in mind I’m sure the state sector could help us far more than we them. It sounded like one of many areas where we could learn from our state school colleagues.

Truth be told we often invite local schools to our events. They pretty much never come. Our classics teacher offered to run Latin classes in local schools and most said no, one even pointed out it was elitist and ‘not what parents would want’. A local secondary did say yes and the teacher taught Latin there to GCSE. There was so much demand that places had to be limited.

When Tristram Hunt gave his speech on private/state cooperation my reaction was simply, ‘they don’t want what we have to offer’. I’m not at all sure it is just about a lack of resources because some state schools do have flourishing music or sports departments. There is no reason to think such schools need our help. However, my husband was at COUNTY level school biathlon championships a few Sundays ago and there was just ONE state school present. One state school teacher without support, with a bevy of very keen athletes and very appreciative parents. Good for her – but so sad.

My school values participation and excellence, academically and in sport, music and drama. I think that is because that is how our success is measured. There is no shortage of will to share our facilities and expertise. However, I think state school teachers have been made very busy chasing very different targets.

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Is teaching a science… or do I need to do the marking?

I’ve been teaching my A2 politics students about differing ideological views of society. Our textbook author explains that some people see our society as like a machine, perhaps a motorbike that can be re-designed, souped-up and improved. You can detach certain parts, even dismantle the whole and put the bike back together better than it was before. For others society is a living organism, like a child for example. The idea that one might ‘dismantle’ a child, redesign it and attempt to improve it makes one recoil in disgust because society, like a child, is greater than its parts and the argument goes that you can’t merrily detach and tinker with certain elements of the whole without doing damage.

In teaching, similarly, I recoil at an instinctive level from attempts to apply a very reductionist approach to my job. Assuming the different aspects of the teacher’s job can be broken down, some detached and performed by others that have no oversight over the big picture, to me is madness. David Didau mentioned a school that employs teachers purely to mark homework, leaving those in the classroom free to spend their time on other aspects of the job. Sod the ambrosia and harp playing no marking sounds like a teacher heaven on earth.

Oh, if that cup could be lifted…

I felt the same when my new born child cried all day and all night and in my sobbing exhaustion I fantasised about having a nanny. However, you can’t harmlessly just lop marking (or night time feeding) off from the bigger job. Both are inextricably rooted in the whole. I’ll explain further:

No external marker can give me the nuanced feedback I get from marking my own students extended writing. Neither can their comments effectively reference the ideas I emphasised in class. My marking is also part of how I build a relationship with my students. My departmental colleagues might be able to mark for me. They are engaged in teaching the same SOW and material, using the same books, towards the same exam, actively thinking about the same challenges. However, it wouldn’t be anyone actively engaged in the challenges of delivering that material that would be doing the marking. It might not even be a subject specialist.

It is worse than this though. I remember years ago being asked by my niece to help with her history GCSE coursework. It was a board set piece I had coincidentally just been doing with my own class. (I am an upright type and didn’t do anything reprehensible.) However, it was startling how differently another teacher had framed the same task. I couldn’t say anything constructive because the way my school had interpreted the task and presented it to the students just did not match her school’s approach.

I can hear my colleagues teaching the same material as I do when I walk along the corridor. The stress is on different elements in terms of content and writing technique. We all seem to get to the same end point but I can’t pick up the threads of a colleagues teaching easily. The route towards an explanation, arguments chosen, examples used and aspects of technique prioritised all change with the teacher. My colleagues might all get fabulous results with the resources they use but I can’t resist tweaking some of them, to make them fit with my approach, my priorities. When I mark, only I really ‘get’ the context that work comes from. When I have not marked timed written work myself I can only feedback to the class effectively if I take quite a bit of time looking over the papers.

This is why I also have such a strong objection to classes being shared between more than one teacher. The very idea that teaching can be reduced to something so mechanistic that it does not matter WHO the teacher is that appears to deliver the next bit of the material is anathema to my view of what good teaching means.

I am not so foolish as to adopt an extreme position that dismisses all possibility of analysing the separate aspects of a teacher’s job. The reductionist approach of scientific method, analysing isolated parts of what a teacher does, can be useful. I have been able to lop off weak aspects of my teaching and make the whole better. I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the idea of external markers. I currently only tend to mark tests and weekly extended writing, which I largely set for homework. I don’t have time to mark class notes and perhaps that could be done externally, rather than not at all. For other subjects or at different key stages (I only teach year 10 and above) what can usefully be marked externally would be different and for some marking loads are totally unreasonable currently. I can see that there will be wide variation in what is appropriate but if a  teacher does have lots of work that could reasonably be marked by someone else I wonder if it needs to be marked at all, or in the case of some forms of homework, did it ever need to be set?

I do believe it is symptomatic of a horrible malaise in education that for many teaching is so often viewed in a mechanistic, reductionist way. We see the impact of this in the way KS3 and GCSE classes are shared between teachers, the way teachers are graded from a few lesson observations and in the way fads are enforced using check box lists. We see trainers and SLT suggesting that by following a recipe, adding up a mish-mash of individual bits of ‘good practice,’ you can create a whole thing of worth – a Frankenstein’s monster more like.

I will gladly use research, gladly analyse individual parts of my practice or even allow others to do bits of my job but ONLY when the starting point is to acknowledge the challenges innate in taking apart something as complex and interdependent as the act of teaching.