A ‘privileged education’?

Apparently private schools get better value added than state schools – even when social background is accounted for. Apparently the researchers are at a loss to explain why.

I know why. I know one reason why anyway.

In the private sector it is virtually unheard of at KS3 and GCSE for multiple teachers to share a teaching set between them. In the state sector this is common practice.

No matter how sparkling the lessons are, or how brilliant the feedback is, or how thorough the tracking, if SLT choose to ignore basic facts about human nature the school won’t be successful. For example:

  • Human beings gain satisfaction from forming relationships. In our culture teaching involves building relationships with our students. These relationships help us get the best out of our students. If a set is shared then the two teachers have double the children to know and half the time to get to know them. It will presumeably take double the time to work out those essential pieces of information: who is lazy, who lacks confidence, who will get confused, who is well and truly ‘hiding their light under a bushel’. It is hard to teach well when you barely know the class and don’t see them much.
  • Teachers want to get stuck in and mold their class. We are not input delivery machines, which can be inter-changeably rolled out in front of a class. By seeing our classes regularly enough we are able to keep tabs on them, ensuring work is handed in, is adequate and that there are timely consequences for laziness and swift aid when children struggle.
  • Schools claim to believe good feedback is essential but many seem to pretend that this is a mechanical process. ‘Feedback’ actually involves communication between two human beings and therefore the degree of knowledge and trust between the participants makes a significant difference to the likely success of the interaction.

But it is not just a matter of teacher/pupil relationships:

  • When sets are shared there are also all inevitable challenges created by the need to communicate with the other teacher very regularly.

But most crucially children learn less well:

  • Children seem to struggle to see the overlap between slightly different explanations of similar issues.

For example, I teach ‘conservatism’ for an A level political ideologies course and another teacher will cover ‘liberalism’. Whenever I refer to liberalism (essential when teaching Thatcher’s neoliberal economic policies) my class struggle to see any connection between the ‘neoliberalism’ I teach and the ‘classical liberalism’ they learnt about in the classroom next door, even though the ideas are VIRTUALLY THE SAME! Even when sharing lesson plans colleagues seem to stress different aspects of the content. We all seem to get to the same end point but I can’t pick up the threads of a colleague’s teaching easily. The route towards an explanation, arguments chosen and examples used all change with the teacher. This helps explain that bizarre amnesia classes display about anything they learnt with another teacher.

Interestingly this phenomenon is clearly explained in the research of cognitive psychologists which shows that ‘novice’ learners are drawn to the superficial aspects of an issue. Therefore when the issue is presented in even a slightly different way it seems unfamiliar to them. I used to think that it was a good thing that pupils got to see the same issue from different angles with different teachers. However, I now think that, in practice, rather than gaining greater insight pupils simply learn less. At A level, when two teachers can both get a decent chunk of time with the class there is no real issue but lower down the school this isn’t the case. It helps if subject teachers sharing a class cover different topics rather than teaching alternate lessons but this by no means overcomes the fundamental problems.

At times sharing a class may really be the least-worst option for all involved.  It can be a constructive experience for colleagues working together and two part- timers committed to making their job share work will go the extra mile. From discussions on twitter it seems there is great variation in the amount schools resort to this practice which implies some degree of choice in prioritisation by SLT. Certainly a skilled timetabler can solve many problems a timetable programme can’t. However good the school’s excuses, it doesn’t change the fact that if classes are frequently shared between teachers the teaching will be worse.

Still unconvinced? Think about it from a parental perspective. Whatever the validity of the latest research on state versus private, if the choice was made explicit would you really think it was insignificant that your child’s teachers had double the children to know and half the time to get to know them?

It seems one of the key privileges of a private education is simply being able to have one teacher for each subject. Sad times.