Colin Logan, a SSAT senior education lead, sees the changes for the better as well as the worse in his 40-year career in education
An old friend pointed out to me the other day that this is my 40th year working in education. Readers under the age of about 30 will probably choose to stop reading at this point: I’d like to think that, starting as a young, confident teacher back in 1979, I would have listened to the ramblings of an ageing pedagogue who had started his career at the outbreak of the second world war – but somehow I suspect that I might have chosen not to. So if you have read this far and are now jumping ship, thanks for reading and have a great career.
It’s hard to imagine now but, back in those halcyon days, there was no Ofsted, no national curriculum, no school performance data and no accountability measures. So how, in the absence of all that, did we know how well or badly a school was doing? The answer is that we didn’t. Local authorities (or local education authorities as they then were) had teams of advisors who would come in to see newly-qualified teachers and provide advice on appointments. They might undertake a review of a school once in a blue moon, but the ensuing reports had few, if any, teeth and they weren’t published anyway – not that there was an internet to publish them on. Parents and others had no idea about the quality of schools’ A-level, O-level or CSE (certificate of secondary education) results. And of course there were no primary school tests at all. Local papers used to carry lists provided by schools themselves of the names of students who had passed exams with the best grades – but there were no aggregated school figures and nothing either local or national to compare them with anyway.
I remember finding a sheet of folded, musty paper in an old filing cabinet in the early 1990s in the school where I was working. It had come from my comprehensive school’s predecessor grammar school and was a list of the O-level results of fifth year (year 11) pupils from its last year of existence, 1974. That would be the grammar school which, in the memory of local people, had been a fine, high-performing institution that had been destroyed in favour of its non-selective successor in a drive down towards egalitarian mediocrity. It didn’t take long to tot up the individual results and see that, given that the grammar school educated the cream of local youth, the results were abysmal. Or rather, they appeared to be abysmal because there was nothing to compare them with nationally. But, even so, they were dire, believe me — and yet local people had no idea.
Without comparative data being published, people had no idea of how their local schools were performing
There was no national curriculum until 1988. Anyone remember the Gerbil? That was Kenneth Baker’s ‘great education reform bill’, which became the Education Reform Act introducing the national curriculum and school league tables, which led to the creation of Ofsted in 1992.
While I was plying my trade at various institutions up and down the country prior to 1988, my poor children changed primary schools more times than was probably good for them. One good point, however, was that they became very knowledgeable about the Vikings, because no matter which school they went to, in whatever year group, they found themselves being taught about the Vikings.
And that was because schools chose what they taught and when, without any prescription or co-ordination. The upside of the deal, however, was that good schools in those days did a large amount of curriculum development and planning. Mode 3 CSEs were devised, set and marked by teachers, often from groups of schools working together, producing schemes of work for 15 and 16-year-olds that were appropriate to the local context and the needs of students. That level of curricular innovation and planning was soon to disappear, and didn’t make a reappearance for another 25 years or more.
Then Dylan Wiliam’s 2013 pamphlet for SSAT, Principled Curriculum Design, followed by our Curriculum and Assessment: Inset in a Box and the Four Pillars of Principled Curriculum Design resources preceded Ofsted’s adoption of curriculum intent, implementation and impact and helped to reignite debate in schools about the curriculum after years during which most of us slavishly followed the national curriculum, often only making minor tweaks to option columns in key stage 4.
School-led curriculum development and planning disappeared in the 1980s, and did not reappear for some 25 years
I’m not sure we had much school leadership back then. We had headmasters and headmistresses, certainly, but theirs was mostly a managerial rather than a leadership role. They ran the school, maintained discipline among students (and staff) and were the public face of the school. With some notable exceptions, however, they didn’t break much new ground. Similarly with governance: school governors were largely symbolic figures with little or no responsibility for decision-making. Governors’ meetings were more like mid-afternoon sherry receptions than executive board meetings.
Remember that in those days there was no local management of schools. Headteachers were told by the LEA how many teachers they could employ; they had no control over spending or building work and all bills were paid centrally. I recall a notice that went up on the staffroom board one spring in the early 1980s: “The LEA has a sum of £250,000 in its education budget that must be spent by the end of the financial year. Heads of department in county schools are invited to submit lists of resources that they would like purchased.” The role of heads of department (or middle leaders as they then weren’t) was to make sure that their department was adequately stocked with books, paper, pens and pencils. Monitoring the quality of teaching and learning never came into it. As there was little or no accountability: neither headteachers nor governors were overly concerned with the performance of the school, staff or students – because nobody knew and nobody therefore asked any questions. Despite reservations about Ofsted, performance tables and the expectations made on leaders and governors in schools, I think I know which era I prefer, in this respect at least.
On the other hand, there are many things that haven’t changed in 40 years. We still have students sitting at desks, working from textbooks and writing things down in their exercise books. Blackboards and chalk might have given way to interactive whiteboards, but I’m not sure how much interactivity goes on with them in many schools. As a young languages teacher in the 1980s holding up flashcard after flashcard illustrating the weather or different sports and pastimes, I would have relished the chance to be able to access real French or Spanish weather forecasts or sporting commentaries via a whiteboard to introduce or practise new topics. An examination hall in 2019 looks much the same as it did in 1979 (or even 1939 come to that). Where has the spirit of innovation that burned so brightly around the turn of the century, encouraged by SSAT and others, gone?
Despite concerns about funding, workload and political interference, all is not doom and gloom. I suspect, with no verifiable evidence whatsoever but purely from talking to teachers and observing lessons, that we now have the best teaching workforce in the 40 years I’ve been working. They talk about pedagogy (which we never did), learn from each other and are starting to feel freer to experiment. They are not always best-served by some school leaders who make unnecessary demands of them in terms of formal marking, feedback and assessment, often from a mistaken impression that it’s necessary in order to cover their own backs. But there are some signs that the tide is turning, away from conformity and compliance checking to an approach that recognises the professionalism of teachers and leaders to make decisions in the best interests of their pupils. Ofsted seems to be starting to follow that course, too, although, as far as the 2019 framework is concerned, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
I fully intend still to be around in 2059 (only another 40 years), but that just shows how deluded old men can be. I’d love to know what happened next.
Despite concerns about funding, workload and political interference, I suspect that we now have the best teaching workforce in the 40 years I’ve been working
Senior Education Lead