No more low-trust schools

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

Too many teachers feel that they are not valued for the work they do and too many schools operate a low-trust environment

Trust is essential for good work. It is one of the key components of a working environment which gives appropriate choice and responsibility to workers.

Without trust the job becomes a grind as professional choice is denied and documentation and bureaucracy are imposed in order for the worker to “prove” to their manager that they are, indeed, doing their job.

The issue of trust, or the lack of it, is one that has been raised repeatedly by Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at the OECD, who has argued that teachers will not be motivated to stay in a profession where they are treated like “widgets” on a factory production line – monitored for quality control and required to adopt processes that they find neither useful or helpful.

Over the past years we have seen an erosion of trust in teachers. This has been manifest in a panoply of measures taken to monitor and assess the quality of teachers’ work with their pupils – constructed in the form of elaborate lesson planning proformas and marking frameworks; in book-looks and learning walks; in the mountain of data, largely meaningless, which seeks to demonstrate that pupils have made progress.

As trust has eroded, teachers have seen their workload increase. It is interesting that teachers in the UK do not, on average, teach longer hours in the classroom than the OECD average. But they do twice as much work outside the classroom, completing bureaucratic tasks designed to demonstrate to others that they are teaching effectively.

Of course, this is time largely wasted because it simply isn’t possible for anyone to make a judgement on the quality of teaching and learning by looking at lesson plans.

Nor, as research has shown, is it possible to accurately judge the quality of teaching through lesson observations. The act of teaching and the process of learning are just too complex and multi-faceted.

The erosion of trust in teachers has had a toxic effect. Forty per cent of NQTs leave within five years of qualifying. The low retention rate of early career teachers is the biggest threat to educational standards in this country. Just as teachers gain the experience to move into middle leadership and pass on their expertise, they leave teaching – seeking to regain some form of work/life balance.

Teachers do not leave teaching, mostly, because of their work with their pupils in classrooms. They leave because the job has become so onerous, the bureaucracy so all-encompassing. They refuse to sacrifice their health and their relationships any further. They look back on their time in education with a mixture of pride and regret – pride for what they accomplished and regret that they felt forced to leave a profession they could have made such a contribution to.

Things are now coming to a head. Government ministers have stopped attempting to airily wave away any mention of the teacher recruitment and retention crisis and now realise that something must be done. The problem is that the government’s initiatives to tackle workload are not up to the scale of the problem. They rely on small-scale changes which, while laudable in themselves, do not address the root causes – a toxic accountability framework and an inspection system which drives the production of documentation and proof of classroom practice and pupil progress.

In the end there must be radical changes to the current accountability framework. And there will be a decentralisation of education policy away from Whitehall. The teacher supply crisis will not go away until this happens. But until it does, teachers will continue to burn-out and leave – and educational standards will continue to be lowered because of an acute shortage of teachers.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.


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