November 2012

The know zone

  • Warning signs
    Schools and colleges owe a duty of care to pupils and the wider public and could be held liable where damage is caused to a person or property by their actions or failures. Richard Bird explains. More
  • Energy crisis
    Exhausted teachers don’t make for good teachers. As funding gets tighter and pupil-teacher ratios increase, schools need to help staff lighten their load, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Mark Twain, Aaron Levenstein, WIE Gates, Louis Brandeis More
  • The Write Stuff
    Alistair Macnaughton, 53, has been head of The King’s School, Gloucester, for five years. A former arts journalist, his previous posts include director of theatre at Charterhouse School and second master at King’s School, Worcester. More
  • Political insight
    Parliament’s Education Service aims to inform, engage and empower young people to understand and get involved in Parliament, politics and democracy. More
  • Clean bill of health?
    Nearly half of ASCL members say that preparing for inspection is one of their top concerns. Here, leaders share their views on whether the latest inspection reforms, especially short notice and the focus on teaching quality, have made inspection more or less fit for purpose? More
  • Adding value was one of the big stars of the road this summer, providing roadside assistance to members on their way to be part of the Olympics, off on their holiday or even something as simple as taking the kids to school or driving to work. More
  • Leaders Surgery
    Teachers' Standards advice and Advice on allegations against teachers More
  • Shifting sands...
    With flawed data being used in this year’s performance tables and by Ofsted inspectors, exam results being kept artifficially low, and the huge inconsistencies in GCSE marking, how do schools and colleges measure improvement? How do parents and governors? Is it now time to take matters into our own hands, asks Brian Lightman? More
  • Layered Cake
    Most people have an idea of what to expect when becoming a headteacher, but there are many aspects of the role that simply only experience will reveal as Geoff Barton explains. More
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Energy crisis

Exhausted teachers don’t make for good teachers. As funding gets tighter and pupil-teacher ratios increase, schools need to help staff lighten their load, says Sam Ellis.

When I was a youth in Manchester, I was lucky enough to see Best, Law and Charlton play at Old Trafford. They were amazing to watch. During 36 years of teaching, I was also lucky enough to work with some really gifted teachers. To me, they were just as amazing...but in different ways.

It took me some years to realise that the magic was not in teacher performance but in the way the lesson or sequence of lessons worked. I observed learners picking up key concepts and integrating them into a whole from which they could move on. Brilliant!

Mr Gove speaks of teaching as a craft. I disagree; I think teaching is a combination of very high-level skill and pure art. It is like watching brilliant acting – no matter how hard you look you cannot see the wires. Even if I was trained for a lifetime, I could never play like a professional footballer, let alone Best, Law or Charlton. By the same token, I think there are those who can never be trained to teach. Some things are more than a craft.

The September 2012 Ofsted requirements and the implications of the current financial situation concern me. Best, Law and Charlton played like angels, but games had just two 45-minute periods with a 15-minute break. My teaching would have been consistently better if I had taught just two 45-minute lessons with a 15-minute break, twice a week at most.

How good would Best, Law or Charlton have been playing for five hours on the trot with a lunch-hour spent cleaning boots or working as a steward in the queue for the pies?

Similarly, one of the critical issues for Mo Farah and David Weir in the Olympics and Paralympics was the ability to recover from one gold medal performance in time to go on to another.

You can probably see where I am going.

How many Ofsted ‘outstanding’ lessons can one reasonably expect a highly skilled teacher to deliver in a week? I suspect it may be fewer than 20 one-hour lessons.

I do not have an argument with the grade descriptors given for 'outstanding' and 'good' under the heading 'Quality of teaching'. I do, however, wonder about the bullet in 'outstanding' that says, "Teachers and other adults generate high levels of engagement and commitment to learning across the whole school." I also have concerns about the bullet in 'good' that states, "Teachers and other adults create a positive climate for learning in their lessons and pupils are interested and engaged."

Generating high levels of engagement and creating a positive climate for learning is challenging for anyone, including the best of teachers when they are shattered with tiredness.

So what makes teachers tired? As I remember, quite a lot of things. My wife and I both taught. There were many occasions where we would be with a group of people on a Friday evening and you could tell which of us were teachers because we had a tendency to drop off. My wife even fell asleep once in the middle of a Dire Straits gig in Sheffield!

At the risk of sounding like a Monty Python sketch, apart from marking, performance targets, appraisal, duties, difficult parents, difficult pupils and having to carry books and equipment around at high speed, the two killers for me were teaching large classes and teaching a lot of lessons in the week.

The problem with those last two things is that they link directly to the available funding. The bottom line is that funding determines the pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) the school can afford. The PTR is going to have to go up as the funding gets tighter. If the PTR goes up then classes get bigger or teachers teach more lessons in the week or both.

There could be growth in the number of tired staff and a fall in lesson quality. What is the chance of delivering Ofsted 'Good' or 'Outstanding' if every time you run out on the educational pitch you are shattered? I suppose the trick is to remove as much 'tiring' material from the classroom teacher as possible, so they can focus all their energies on quality teaching.

As the funding gets tighter the last word has to be with William of Ockham: "Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem," or words to that effect. Loosely and politely translated for non-English Baccalaureate students, it means, "Cut out the rubbish." In finance and teaching terms it means that teachers are best paid to teach; that is their core business and we need to find ways of supporting it.

  • Sam Ellis ASCL's funding specialist