Throwing money at a broken system: a response to the increased bursaries for trainee mathematics teachers

Headteachers have been talking about a teacher recruitment crisis over the last year. Trainee mathematics teachers on last year’s Cambridge PGCE programme were being offered interviews well before Christmas. In fact two trainees accepted offers before Christmas, the remainder accepted offers soon into the new year. As course tutor I recieved a stream of phone calls and emails from headteachers to see if anyone was looking for a job. In all it was evidence of unprecedented demand.

The Department for Education (DfE) have been reluctant to acknowledge a recruitment crisis. Saying things like recruitment is challenging because of the buoyant economy; politicking with a smug claim that recruitment difficulties are merely a consequence of effective Government. However, there has been at least some recognition of the seriousness of the situation. Today the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, announced increases in bursaries [1] for trainee teachers. For trainee mathematics teachers with a mathematics degree (or in a subject with a significant proportion of mathematics), if they have a lower second or higher, they can receive a bursary of £25,000 tax free while they are training.

The tragedy in this is that Nick Gibb fails to recognise that our initial teacher education system is now broken. These measures are reactive and do not address the underlying problems. To pretend that they are anything other is an insult to those committed professionals working in initial teacher education and to those headteachers desperately trying to recruit mathematics teachers. The Conservative Government, and the Coalition Government previously, have embarked on an unrelenting pursuit of ideology-driven privatisation of the education system. As part of this process they have marginalised and denigrated the role of universities in initial teacher education. This has severely undermined the recruitment of mathematics teachers. Mathematics teachers appreciate the managed transition from study to teaching (or from another career) that university-led partnerships of initial teacher training offers. But this is only part of the story.

In an attempt to promote School Direct, instead of allowing prospective trainees to make their own minds up about the best way into teaching, the Government has created a confusing and misleading recruitment system. I fear this has put off potential trainee teachers, especially those that are at the early stage of making a decision.

Finally, I think the message coming from schools is of a demoralised profession that is forced into a preoccupation with high-stakes testing, unreasonably high workloads and an emphasis on accountability-driven performativity in place of a focus on pupils, their education and community.

The idea that a booming economy is undermining teacher recruitment is at best hopelessly and misguidedly optimistic at worst simply deluded. The promise in 2010 that ‘teachers know best’ and that the profession should be trusted was an utter lie. It was simply a means to disguise the sheer scale of the privatisation agenda which the Conservative party had covertly committed themselves to.

What would be welcome is for the Government to acknowledge they have made mistakes and that all stakeholders should be consulted in an attempt to repair the system. However, I fear their idealogical mission will not permit this kind of principled reflection.



Teacher activism, teaching unions, neo-liberalism: divided and conquered

While I was a teacher in Cleethorpes and studying for an MEd with the Open University, I read a paper by Judyth Sachs about teacher activism, The Activist Professional [1]. She argued the means to reform state-funded education is through teacher activism. That teachers take the lead in professional and educational decision making. That they become vocal and assertive. And to bring about reforms in education, changes need to be led and implemented by those closest to practice, the teachers. Educational reform is only effective and sustainable through bottom-up activism.

I believed very much in teacher activism then as I do now.

All but a very few of my colleagues then believed in professional activism or that they had professional authority in their classrooms. Authority, for many teachers, was with the headteachers, local authorities and policy-makers. You see in the early to mid noughties, accountability was on the increase, examination results were becoming mission critical, Ofsted inspections were becoming critical to sustaining and developing a headteacher’s career. Local authorities were under increasing pressure to show improvement in the schools that they were responsible for. They also had a responsibility to implement the government curriculum and pedagogy programme: the National Strategies.

The school I was teaching in in the first half of the noughties was placed in special measures [2]. The headteacher resigned and a temporary replacement was appointed. A great deal of pressure was placed on teachers to teach in a particular way using a three-part lesson. We were expected to produce considerable documentation for each lesson, which was checked at random to ensure compliance. We were frequently observed and lessons were graded using Ofsted criteria. We even had an inset day in which teachers were placed in particular groups according to their Ofsted grade.

The acting headteacher was under pressure to show that the school was improving, that teaching and learning was improving and that the school leadership had capacity to improve further. His approach was to impose a regime of obedience and uniformity. This had little or no bearing or even consideration of developing effective teaching and learning. It was expedience in reaction to demanding accountability measures. Within the year I resigned and was offered a post in a neighbouring school. A permanent headteacher was found but the school has never really recovered. In subsequent years it has closed and reopened twice as a new school. The number of pupils at the school has never recovered to the levels that it had before it was placed in special measures.

There was a degree of outrage amongst teaching staff, the headteacher was demanding excessive workloads, feedback was brutal and not developmental. Yet, even in the well attended union meetings teachers would not take collective action. They were frightened. In the past, teachers had stood shoulder to shoulder to defend not only their working conditions but also their professional judgement in the class. Although many of my colleagues were members of a union, there was an unwillingness to collectively challenge what was going on the school and the inappropriate treatment by the inspectorate. Unionism and dispute had been denigrated and humiliated in the 1980s. First images and stories of union dominance in the 1970s, the final humiliation in the 1980s, particularly characterised by television images of the miners’ strike. By the noughties union action had been demonised, furthermore neoliberal individualism was divisive and encouraged colleagues to pursue self-interest over collective action. Unionism as a vehicle for teacher activism had been compromised.

Through the latter part of the decade Michael Gove was planning the Conservative’s education policy. In his white paper, The Importance of Teaching, published shortly after the Coalition Government took power in 2010, he weaved freemarket ideology into a vision of a teacher-led education system. He marginalised the teaching unions, the local authorities and university schools and faculties of education. The settlement on offer to headteachers was autonomy, the freedom to run their schools with minimal state intervention, even though we know from international data that school autonomy does not necessarily lead to improvement. He said to teachers, they know best. It was but a shallow offer of professional autonomy because accountability remains master. He cast the unions, universities and local authorities as “the blob”, they were a barrier to school and professional autonomy. Gove was effective in delivering a private freemarket ideology, but hiding it beneath a discourse of institutional and professional freedom.

As he rejected the so-called blob, he identified with neo-traditional teachers who had become well known through social media. They shared some common views about curriculum and pedagogy, rejecting progressive ideas favouring traditional authoritarian education and classroom practice. As a result the neo-traditional tweachers and teacher bloggers became the new teacher activist movement. They have become the voice of teacher autonomy.

Certainly this activism has created interest amongst the profession. No one can deny the success of movements like Research Ed. However, I do have a concern about the neo-traditional agenda that is being put forward by a number of these new social media activists. This reflects Gove’s ideology, with the teacher taking a traditional authoritarian role in classrooms and that curriculum and pedagogy has an emphasis on facts and fluency. More clearly emphasised is what neo-traditional approaches are not about, neo-traditional activisit often define their project in terms of it not being progressive, constructivist, featuring groupwork or discovery learning. Indeed their activism, they often characterise as being driven to escape progressive ideas that have been thrust on them by experts (e.g. academics and local authority consultants).

So where I have concern with neo-traditional social media teacher activism is in its narrowness of perspective. Its rejection of educational scholarship, ambivalence towards the importance of local democracy in education and ambivalence toward teaching unions. I fear they campaign for a false professional freedom, what is more it is dangerously aligned with freemarket and privatisation ideology which has the potential damage our education system.

Activism should not be progressive or traditional, it should not marginalise stakeholders such as the university schools of education, but should be pressing for a democratic education system, focussing on social justice, equality and high-quality learning outcomes. In order to achieve this, activists need to focus on the standing of the profession, its capacity to act collectively, to argue confidently using scholarly discourse. The profession needs to ensure that it can offer professional justification for what individual teachers do in their classrooms and influence how the education system is structured and organised. A strong activist teaching profession is symbiotic with teaching unions and academics. Teachers need to have voice alright, but they need the organisation and discourse to make it heard and deliver the argument. Acitivism needs to be campaigning against the real oppressor, that is policy that is ideologically focussed on privatisation, and accountability systems that work to support the agenda of political masters. The enemy in this is not educational scholarship, the teaching unions or local democracy.

[1] Sachs, J. (2000). The activist professional. Journal of Educational Change, 1(1), 77–94.

[2] Special measures is the lowest rating given by the inspectorate, Ofsted. A school is monitored regularly until improvements have been moved.