Please start listening to the experts

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Dr Bernard Trafford urges the government to adopt a new approach to education in 2017

A new year, a new school term: inevitably, it’s time to consider those new year resolutions.

I’ve made one. Having announced my decision to retire this summer, I shall resolutely remain positive. I have vowed not to utter the words: “It won’t be my problem.” I just don’t think it’s acceptable.

Even in retirement, I’m not convinced teachers can entirely divorce themselves from their lifetime’s work. Moreover, if teaching is a vocation (and it is), we can’t help but live out the belief that education is something for all of us, for the whole of society, for the nation as a whole. As active citizens, we cannot turn our backs on it and say: “Nothing to do with me.”

Meanwhile, I’d like to ask the government to make some resolutions. In 2017, government should resolve listen to professionals in general, and educationists in particular. The malaise that has so long infected politicians in charge of public services was laid bare when Michael Gove famously derided experts during the Brexit campaign. It was disgraceful: as he’s admitted while he’s experiencing the repentance of the recently humbled. Credit for honesty?

Perhaps. But the arrogance that led him to publicly despise those with specialist knowledge remains unpardonable.

Under the current regime, with Justine Greening running education under PM Theresa May, policy-makers’ ears appear deafer than ever. It’s worrying, because if they adopted my first suggested resolution, they would be compelled to adopt my second, which is to take greater care of teachers.

All of us have at least one friend (in my friendship circle, it’s generally me) who always contrives to say the wrong thing.

Justine Greening is the tactless guest par excellence. Just when teachers are at their weariest, in early December, she announced that she cannot foresee teachers getting more than one per cent as a cost of living increase to their salaries.

Next she compounded it by explaining, sententiously, that even one per cent will cost the country £250 million. The implication is that it’s tiresome for teachers to complain of their incomes being eroded: the fact that even the modest rate of inflation of recent years has outstripped government’s feeble attempts to keep pace with it is disregarded.

We do indeed have problems with our national balance of payments: but it’s time governments stopped blaming public servants for costing too much!

Government must make the profession more attractive if it wishes to attract great teachers, not to mention school leaders. Beyond that, it needs simply to get its act together. Figures released on teacher recruitment at the end of November made grim reading. Recruitment targets were hit in only four secondary subjects, overall targets being missed by the Department for Education (DfE) for the fourth year running. Predictably, perhaps, geography, biology, history and PE over-recruited at secondary level: by contrast, maths saw only 84 per cent recruited against the target, physics 81 per cent, computing 68 per cent, and design technology 41 per cent.

Government strategy for teacher recruitment is in disarray. Michael Gove’s distrust of experts led him to take teacher-training (ITT) out of the traditional, well-organised and more easily managed realm of higher education, instead creating hubs of teaching schools across the country. I know many of these consortia are doing an excellent job and, notwithstanding government distrust of universities’ involvement in education, you’d struggle to find any Teaching School that wasn’t involved with a university because it would be perverse not to be.

Nonetheless, by delegating what should be a central function of the DfE right down to school level, government has forfeited any clear oversight. The result is predictable, dismal and presents serious problems for the future.

Just to reiterate. My new year’s (educational) resolutions for government are these: “Listen to the teaching profession, make it more attractive, and organise ITT properly!” Is it so much to ask?

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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