Saturday, 17 March 2018

Driving Our Profession Forward

A talk given at the Queen's University, Belfast Flip the System seminar.
15 March, 2018

This is a title with a lot of assumptions.

First, the very notion of profession. Used constantly to define us, and yet poorly defined in itself. In turns a compliment – what professionalism! - or a reprimand – that’s not very professional! - an aspiration – to be or become a professional - or a cry for help – treat me like a professional!

Then that little word ‘our’. Whose? Politicians’? Academics’? Progressives? Traditionalists? Primary? Secondary? EYFS? Mainstream? PRUs? Special Schools? NQTs? SLTs?

And ‘driving forward’. Where to? Why? At what speed and at what cost? Along what route and according to what map?

And who’s at the wheel exactly?

These questions form the locus of what Flip the System UK offers answers to and explores. Offers answers to because some of these questions have definite answers – answers which arise from taking the time and care to define our terms. Explores because some of these questions don’t have singular answers – they invite and welcome plurality.

Lucy’s introduction to the book is a paean to plurality. By contrast, our experience of the classroom and of leadership is one redolent with compliance, coercion and cooption, characterised by voicelessness and powerlessness. And we know this is echoed by so many of our colleagues across the UK. We found solace in the original Flip the System, a brave and powerful book which, at our lowest ebb, showed us both that we were not alone, and gave us hope that we could change things – not just for ourselves but for everyone working in a school or college.

The fundamental barrier to our professionalism is exclusion. If we are any kind of profession at all, we are one that excludes. Presently, we do that to the toll of nearly 50,000 teachers each year in England alone. That’s two and a half times the total teaching workforce of Northern Ireland. 

There are a quarter of a million qualified teachers in England who choose not to teach. That is a profession that looks itself in the mirror… and shudders. If we are to be a true profession – a proud and fearless one - we must be collegiate, inclusive, representative.

Toxic weather in our classrooms and staffrooms.


Do we blame politicians? Well, yes. If you want a savage indictment of the political climate that is making for toxic weather in our classrooms and staffrooms, you need look no further than Julian Critchley’s chapter on Why Policy Makers Make Mistakes.

But do we stop there? No. Our little book is chock full of hope and of alternatives, and our insight, one we hope we can all get behind, is that they are all equally valid, so long as they adhere to three defining aspects of professionalism: that they are informed, that they are collaborative and that they are ethical.

One thing to us is clear: The system of top-down, punitive accountability is bankrupt. We are all piled into the passenger seats – or the boot (not to mention all those thrown under the wheels) – of a car whose pilot is both single-minded and erratic, both all-powerful and unaccountable.

That’s not driving our profession forward. It is driving us up the wall… Or over a cliff.

Conceived another way, we are all chauffeuring a car whose only passenger is at once authoritarian and flighty.

That’s not driving our profession forward either. It’s Driving Miss … Crazy.

As Tony Gallagher says in this Flip the System UK  chapter, Northern Ireland has been sheltered from the worst impacts of neoliberal market reforms. Mainly, it has been spared by its history and its geography.

Geographically, the relatively small size of the country has by and large made for a better-integrated system. There is perhaps less dissonance here between a national curriculum and the need for regional character. Stakeholders are a tighter-knit group and there are few shadows for think tanks and interest groups to hide in.

Historically, the drive for peace and reconciliation among Northern Ireland’s communities has put education in an enviable position. Where, in England, the discourse of schools as a cure-all for society’s ills is a vehicle for constant change and pressure, here by contrast education has been given one clear aim: teach peace.

And it is this aim, supported by that regional co-ownership of education, that make Northern Ireland unique among the UK’s parallel systems.

Tony will talk more about his own chapter, and the importance of teacher professionalism in building a sustainable system upon this strong sociocultural foundation. 

For my part, I want to note that building a sustainable system is never something that is done and dusted. Sustainability is an ongoing process of revision and adaptation. There is no magic bullet, but we can build the institutions that make crises avoidable and change a far less stressful occurrence. In other words, a democratic system.

I want to leave you with a couple of remarks on the direction of travel to drive our profession forward.

In England, we need more cars and more drivers, for a start. We don’t all fit on the National Curriculum coach, and it’s beginning to feel oddly like a scene from Speed on board in any case.

We need common destinations and a highway code, for sure. But we also need the infrastructure that allows us to choose our pit stops and our detours, our mood music and our rate of progress. None of which takes away from the quality of education each of our students receives, but without doubt improves the benefits we will all feel from a better education system.

And how do we get there? Flip the System UK’s key tenet is that we do it by pushing together, not pulling apart. We reject the model of international comparison embodied by PISA, one that can only ever justify top-down intervention and, sticking with my driving metaphor, a chop-shop approach to system reform.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other – classroom to classroom, university faculty to university faculty, classroom to university faculty and vice versa.

What Northern Ireland teaches us is that giving primacy to social cohesion – in other words, to democracy and representation – and that honouring the link between schools and their broad communities are the strongest foundations for a truly inclusive state education system.

What England teaches us, by negative example, is the result of doing the opposite, of giving primacy to outcomes. Division and entrenchment, stress and a spiralling crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, and a school system that increasingly excludes the most vulnerable students.

But as Tony’s chapter shows, that isn’t a justification for complacency either. To sustain the democratic ethos of education, the only way is teacher professionalism.

And that can only come from teachers themselves. With apologies to academics and politicians in the room, your job can’t be to define it for us, but to support us to define it for ourselves. That is democracy, and we are its drivers.

After all, revolutions don’t drive themselves. 

Who’s at the wheel? We are.

Q&A - Policy Levers, Deliverology, and Nudge


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