John Catt Educational
8 Apr 2022
Mary Bousted is clear from the outset that Support Not Surveillance is a book of “unashamed, evidenced polemic”. In it, the NEU joint general secretary sets out to unpick the tangled paths that have led us to a system that loses so many teachers – and loses them earlier and earlier in their careers.
Her central thesis is that the “exodus” is primarily the result of the profession being perceived as unrewarding, and her comparison with OECD averages paints a compelling picture of abnormally high pressure, long hours and heavy accountability. But why?
Bousted asserts that political will (when it is there), often “looks for answers in all the wrong places”. Political posturing has it that bringing results up is a question of not being “soft on standards”. By extension, the solution is to be hard on teachers, and the enforcer of standards in education, Ofsted, drives workload in the effort.
So far, so NEU. For sure, her views on Ofsted are clear: a confusing and toxic “shadow” looming over the profession that contributes nothing to school improvement and fails even to provide an accurate picture of the sector. But for Bousted the silver bullet is not so much a return to some pre-Ofsted halcyon days as reducing burdensome administration and intelligently reforming regulation and inspection.
The main thrust of her argument is equally compelling. She cites Education Policy Institute research that Ofsted is “better at judging the characteristics of a school’s pupil intake than of the education it provides”, and her examination of inspection data backs her claim that schools serving disadvantaged cohorts are “punished” for their intakes.
Given that 40 per cent of the educational attainment gap emerges before children start school, it’s hard not to agree with Bousted that this is not the result of a “poverty of expectations” but of actual poverty, and that holding the teaching profession responsible for mitigating that is unjust – especially when funding cuts have disproportionately hit the most disadvantaged schools.
There’s plenty of politics here. Bousted is outraged by Sunak’s 2021 budget statement putting educational spending back to 2010 levels by 2024 at a time of increased need. She is scathing of the ITT market review, using it as a prime example of policy-making failure. She accuses ministers of blaming “the blob” for the consequences of their own policies.
Readers may disagree, and baulk at her portrayal of our situation in near-Dickensian terms, but they will still have to argue with the evidence. The context of a “heat-or-eat” cost-of-living crisis while local authority support services have been eviscerated makes that hard.
And it’s made all the harder by the fact that Bousted addresses her own position throughout, consistently showing that she is articulating issues felt very broadly and cleverly citing the DfE’s own research about post-pandemic recovery to do it. When changes to accountability and assessment are top priorities for over 75 per cent of school leaders after two years of Covid, Bousted’s identification of the problem is clearly spot on. And her focus on recruitment and retention never wavers as she discusses the long squeeze on teacher pay, the lack of flexible working and more.
In terms of big-ticket reforms, Bousted proposes profound changes to Ofsted, more regional accountability and a refocus on school improvement. She argues government needs to “do less, better” and proposes an independent body to limit ministerial intervention in core educational matters.
Not all of her proposals are on the policy level. She also hones in on school leadership, bemoaning its transformation into a role for monitoring rather than supporting teachers’ performance. Here, I was primed to disagree, but found myself nodding along instead. This is no SLT-bashing; Bousted is at pains to state that leaders are constrained by a system that puts their “heads on the metaphorical chopping block”.
I may not agree with every word, and a less polemical tone may have won more plaudits, but there is no denying that this is indeed both unashamed and evidenced.
More than that, it’s a timely reminder that there is hope of a better way – and that’s as good a reason as any to stay.