Fellow policy geeks will remember many a cautionary tale from the TV series, West Wing. As I’ve read the evaluations of the government’s professional development reforms over the past year, I’ve been reminded of one in particular.
A pollster tells the Democratic president he could sew up re-election if he leads the charge for an amendment against flag burning. Republicans aren’t the only ones who don’t like flag burning – everyone wants to see it banned.
His advisors are spooked: such an amendment goes against what they believe in, but the data seems compelling.
Eventually they are saved from making a very bad policy call by the fabulous pollster, Joey Lucas, who’d asked her sample better questions: not only if they thought flag burning was wrong, but how strongly they felt about it and how much this issue would influence their vote. Their answer was an overwhelming, ‘No’.
Over the past two years, teachers have been asked lots of questions about the Early Career Framework (ECF), and one of the most consistent headlines has been about the problem of workload.
The conclusion many will have drawn is that mentors and early-career teachers (ECTs) alike are frustrated by the time demands of the ECF programme. And an obvious policy response might be to reduce the time requirements of the ECF, stripping back training content for early career teachers or mentors.
But have we asked the right questions? Do we really understand the issue and what changes our teachers actually need?
Ambition Institute recently commissioned some YouGov polling to dig into the issue. One finding jumped right off the page, as it seemed so directly contrary to all that we’d been reading in the press.
We asked teachers about the factors that most contributed to workload pressures and what they would spend less time on. Interestingly, the ECF was very last on the list.
Participating in the ECF or other professional development activities (including as a mentor to ECTs) and managing relationships with colleagues were the least frequently chosen options. Just 10 per cent of respondents included them in their top five. These were closely followed by looking after pupils’ mental health (12 per cent) and pastoral care and safeguarding (12 per cent).
Conversely – and this might not be a big surprise – the majority of teachers would choose to spend less time on meetings and administrative tasks (74 per cent), preparing for Ofsted inspections (60 per cent) and marking (55 per cent).
Additionally, 85 per cent of teachers believe that it is important for ECTs to take time each week for their professional development through activities such as self-study, training sessions and mentoring.
Nine in ten teachers (91 per cent) think being mentored by more experienced teachers is critical to the professional development of ECTs. And the same proportion believe mentors should be trained in how best to support, coach and constructively challenge ECTs. Only 1 per cent disagree.
This is consistent with this week’s Ofsted review of teacher professional development across England. It found that teachers and leaders actually want more time dedicated to professional development, but workload pressures and lesson cover get in the way – even when time is set aside by school leaders.
Despite this, Ofsted found that the ECF and reformed NPQs were ‘a significant step forward’. Participants on these programmes are consistently more positive about their professional development.
It’s great that the DfE has launched a review to further improve the implementation of the ECF. We should continue to improve the design and delivery of the framework. But the Ofsted review suggests that more pressing issues lie elsewhere.
Professional development isn’t making workload unmanageable; workload is getting in the way of professional development.
Teachers actually want more time for professional development, not less.
The question we should be asking is how we can provide all teachers with access to professional development that is high-quality, evidence-based and rigorous? Our teachers and children deserve no less.