If you’ve felt the ice is slowly melting, it’s because there has to be a new optimism in our schools in this last term, and middle leaders have to be the drivers of this. That might feel hard to contemplate when you consider some of the challenges that are no longer on a distant horizon, but are here, now, on your list: haphazard curriculum change; new GCSE exams and a new grading system; a proposed fair funding formula that feels anything but, married to continuing cuts to school provision; and absolutely atrocious recruitment and retention statistics.
But be optimistic you must and more than that; you have to be proactively, collectively combatting the narrative woven at large that all is lost. I am not saying to be blind to the realities you face. Instead, I’m saying all of us have to find ways to counter those realities with practical action.
Let’s start with curriculum change and the changes to GCSEs, and take Secondary English as an example. The exams have changed, the grading system has changed, the texts have changed, yet teachers up and down the country haven’t retreated to the store cupboard to weep over their abandoned copies of Of Mice and Men. And why? Because, for their pupils, the stakes are too high. They do not need prevarication from their English teachers right now – they need action. Positive, decisive action to put in place plans, lessons and opportunities for practice assessments to help them navigate this new system. There are still so many uncertainties to be faced and there is still a paucity of information and support from official sources, but Heads of English (and indeed Maths) have just got on with it, despite it being an unenviable task.
Whatever your politics, you probably agree that using education as a political football has to stop. The last election was meant to be all about Brexit. The fact that it wasn’t is partly due to the tremendous pressure exerted by all those connected with schools in this country, particularly it should be said from parents who were vehemently opposed to their children’s schools facing the sort of cuts that is leading to shorter weeks, pleas for funds and resources, and staff redundancies. Teachers who have to remain politically neutral in the classroom, despite Labour’s corny early election broadcast that suggested the contrary, also rose up in their thousands to send a message that they were angry and they really weren’t going to take this anymore. The result? The Fair Funding formula is having a rethink, Grammar schools are surely dead in the water and cuts…well, the age of austerity has to be coming to an end, surely.
For me, the ice still melts when I sit in a classroom watching staggeringly good teaching, especially when it’s coming from fresh, new recruits. But you’ll be only too aware of the challenge the process of recruitment has become. In Secondary, you are lucky to get a field of candidates even for main scale posts while recruiting for a head of faculty is even more difficult (although PE consistently bucks this trend). At the same time, targets for recruitment to training places for most subjects are consistently missed, year upon year. Teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate citing a range of factors for their decision. At what point do we start to think the unthinkable – that soon we won’t have enough teachers to teach the nation’s children?
This is unacceptable, and it is our biggest challenge, but keep in mind those ice-melting moments because teaching is an amazing profession full of warmth and passion and moments of spontaneous brilliance. We have to talk up teaching, always and in all ways, to all who will listen. And listen ourselves, too, to the reasons teachers give for considering quitting and consider how to counter those concerns. We also have to ‘grow our own’ teachers – I’m working with a SCITT to do just that, looking at how ITT students can see a long career ahead of them, enriched by coaching, a quality programme of PD and opportunities for promotion and progression. We have to encourage flexible working practices, supporting those returning from parental leave, those looking for a phased retirement or those wishing to step downwards, without prejudice; the linear career path of a teacher needs a rethink.
As middle leaders, we have to come together like never before. Network, coordinate, cooperate, even socialise and see the smiles returning to your faces.
Bio: James Ashmore is the co-author of the book, ‘The New Middle Leader’s Handbook’. He has spent 11 of the last 14 years teaching Secondary English and has held a number of middle leadership roles, including leading two successful English departments. In 2012, he became a Specialist Leader of Education and has supported schools in developing English leadership, curriculum, teaching and assessment. He has also delivered professional development courses for ASCL. At the end of 2014, he left full-time teaching to become a full-time dad, and now works as an educational consultant. He lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with his wife, Louise, and their three beautiful children.