The RSA’s Louise Thomas writes about their new “Re-thinking the Importance of Teaching: Curriculum and Collaboration in an Era of Localism” report.
Louise Thomas is a senior researcher at the RSA
The coalition government’s 2010 White Paper (pdf) emphasises that the importance of teachers to the improvement of the English education system. Indeed, the paper is entitled “The Importance of Teaching” to ensure the point is understood, even by those who never actually read it.
It’s hard to disagree, but we need to think harder about what ‘quality’ in teaching actually means.
Launching the White Paper in November 2010, education secretary Michael Gove rightly said:
“The best education systems draw their teachers from among the top graduates and train them rigorously, focusing on classroom practice.
“They recognise that it is teachers’ knowledge, intellectual depth and love of their subject which stimulates the imagination of children and allows them to flourish and succeed.”
But is this aspiration enough?
The RSA’s most recent report (pdf) on education, “Re-thinking the Importance of Teaching: Curriculum and Collaboration in an Era of Localism”, argues radical reforms of the schooling system provide challenges and opportunities for teaching as a profession.
On the one hand, a slimmed down National Curriculum, and the devolution of curriculum powers to schools under the academies and free schools policies, means teachers are faced with the challenge of deciding what to teach. The academic literature points out the difficulty this presents after decades of de-skilling of the teaching profession in relation to curriculum design.
However, these reforms also provide an opportunity for the teaching profession to reclaim the role of knowledge creators and mediators robbed by the twin prompts to fatalism of the National Curriculum (“teach what you’re told to”) and the information revolution (“you no longer need to teach anything anyway”).
In theory, at least, teachers have more space to develop learning experiences that question received ideas of knowledge, explore the value of the best in our cultural and intellectual inheritance, and create new knowledge that reflects the dynamic, diverse, and information rich world that students are growing up in.
But how many teachers are equipped – with the skills, confidence, or desire – to take on this challenge?
On the other hand, following the demise of the education function of local authorities, it is more and more important schools can ‘tether’ themselves to their local communities, including parents.
Parental engagement is widely understood (pdf) to be crucial to student attainment, but many schools struggle to involve parents in a meaningful way. Parents without a history of educational success themselves can feel intimidated by teaching professionals and schools, and many schools express exasperation at the lack of positive engagement from parents.
What kind of teachers do we aspire to, to meet these challenges?
We believe teachers need to be able to collaborate: with parents and families; with local businesses and heritage organisations; with diverse faith and linguistic communities; and with each other. However, teachers need to be trained, supported, and, yes, expected, to be able to engage and collaborate with the communities they serve.
Too much rhetoric has been spent on the idea that schools must ‘save’ children from the low aspirations, poor literacy and poverty of where they come from, and not enough on working with and on behalf of the families and communities they belong to.
If we are to have a world leading, top class education system, it is not enough that we have teachers that are superb subject teachers, adept at managing classrooms. We need a profession that is creative, collaborative and confident enough in its own professional identity to operate as critical friends to education policy, leaders of educational thought, and collaborators with the communities they serve.
If that sounds ambitious then, well, good; teaching is, after all, important.