A growing divide between those who spend their day talking about the profession and those who spend their day in the classroom is disempowering teachers

Last weekend I, like many other keen-beans, attended the teacher-led researchEd conference. It was crammed with informative talks sharing the latest research on “what works” in education.

This time last year I had just left the classroom to become a policy adviser and was keenly aware of how much I had to learn from people outside schools. I hadn’t really heard the theory of the self-improving “school-led system”; where strong schools help weaker ones through “joint practice development” (a kind of shared CPD). I went to conference after conference, and learned how they were empowering the profession and revolutionising their ability to network, collaborate and share best practice.

The speakers at these conferences were always ones I’d seen before. Spokespeople from the upper-echelons of Ofsted; from one (at a push, two) leading universities in educational research. Prominent figures from the headteachers’ unions and well-known academy chains represented the profession.

The more I listened, the more I doubted. When was the last time they had to scrap a debating lesson for year 7 to play it safe for a visitor’s “learning walk”? When did they last forge a child’s response to formative feedback five minutes before a book-scrutiny?

As I listened, I became convinced of a growing divide between those who spend their day talking about the profession and those who spend their day doing. Theory and practice. Perceptions and reality.

As part of my research this year, I’ve spoken to teachers up and down the country about their frontline experiences. They haven’t talked about the “revolutionary peer-to-peer learning” they’re engaged in. Instead Emily mentioned that her head of department went on long-term sick with stress. Emily wasn’t reflecting on her classroom practice, she was hurriedly organising the year 11 intervention timetable. Meanwhile, Adam said his primary school couldn’t afford an art specialist anymore, so the peer-coaching, which was supposed to happen while she taught his class, had to be cancelled. Many of these teachers work in outstanding schools that are theoretically in networks with others. But they barely have time to watch the teacher across the corridor, let alone visit a neighbouring school to share best practice.

The school-led system is described as “empowering the profession”. In reality, I think we’ve never been more disempowered. With freedom to depart from pay and conditions, teaching unions are losing their relevance. Without the need for governing bodies to have teacher representation, there are few mechanisms for school leaders to hear teachers’ voices. Meanwhile, as workload ramps up, teachers have less time to think and talk about the changes happening to them – and the more others claim their voice around the policy table.

researchEd is at least a different kind of conference:
This grassroots movement stays populated predominantly by teachers. And you can’t help but be excited by the possibility of a self-improving system when you see so many giving up their Saturday to share “what works” in improving pupil outcomes. But we also need to be asking “what works” in improving the sustainability of our profession and dissembling the barriers to genuine teacher development. And to do that, we need to tap into the knowledge and experience of our frontline teachers – and have their voices properly represented. Then perhaps we could build a real school-led system.

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Policy First is a collective of Teach First ambassadors trying to help teachers critically engage in policy