It’s the teachers, stupid


People are at the heart of our profession, says Marion Gibbs. A fact the returning secretary of state must remember

Teachers really matter to students. Long after they have left school they vividly remember their teachers, the outstanding or good and the less successful or less understanding, but they will not necessarily remember vast amounts of the subject material which they learned for tests and examinations.

Teachers are well aware of this fact, but some of those in charge of education seem not to know it. We teachers are often seen as far less important than examination systems and results or school structures.

Recently, we held our annual alumnae reunion weekend at school. We began with a drinks reception on the Friday night, followed by a lunch and then tea on the Saturday. About 140 past students came to these events; the oldest was aged 97 and had left school in the 1930s and the youngest had left only last summer. One alumna came back from America, having last been in the school when she left in 1967 – she saw a friend she had not seen in all those years and they talked and talked.

The noise levels at times were high, but the atmosphere was definitely one of fun and laughter. As my own retirement draws ever nearer, I was heartened to see so may feisty women, 20 or more years older than me but looking much younger, clearly enjoying life to the full. Some had had illustrious careers, some had focused on their families full-time, but almost all were involved in their local communities and still giving to others.

A group from the 1940s spoke movingly about their experiences during the Second World War, dodging doodle bugs and sheltering from air raids in the basement. But, above all, they talked about their teachers, asking for news of them, telling stories about them and remembering them with great humour and mostly fondness. This was as true for the oldest as for the youngest. Indeed, since I have announced my retirement, I have been very touched by the number of former students who have written and emailed to me wishing me happiness and remembering their time at our school.

As I write, the new government is taking shape. What will it do to education? Will teachers be consulted and then actually listened to? The recently mooted idea that schools should be judged on their performance across a number of years is a most attractive one, but almost certainly will not appeal to those in power.

The abolition of Ofsted is surely just a dream? The tide of regulation never abates. In the independent sector we were issued with a new regulatory handbook of some 120 closely typed pages in April and then another revised and updated version about two weeks later. As soon as these documents are published we have to comply or we could be deemed to be failing. Is life really as harsh as that in the state sector?

Meanwhile, a teacher shortage has been developing, which coupled with budget cuts, especially for sixth forms, is putting huge pressure on many state schools. The reform of initial teacher training has had numerous unintended consequences and access to training courses has become more complicated.

As I said earlier, teachers are the most important part of our education system. Mobile devices, computers and such like may be the favoured companions of the young these days, but the vast majority would prefer a real live teacher to an electronic device to support their learning. 

Returning education secretary Nicky Morgan has said that she wants to continue building bridges with teachers, stating that: “It’s about listening, it’s about hearing what they’ve got to say, tackling things like workload, Ofsted inspections...” We live in hope. 

Education remains in a state of considerable flux and I am personally relieved not to have to face the uncertainties of 2016 and beyond. I hope to be remembered as a good teacher, rather than some great reformer or autocrat. People are at the heart of our profession and long may they remain so.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.



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