This week we saw the publication of the latest OECD survey, this time, complementing PISA, it was TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) – a survey of teachers’ and headteachers’ perceptions. It got some media coverage, but not as much as PISA. Which was probably a good thing, given what some of the journalists managed to make of the statistics – I realised some months ago that the news media is largely a branch of the entertainment industry. TALIS was a very large sample and had very high response rates – including in England with over 80 per cent, so the representation of teachers’ perceptions it represents needs to be taken seriously.
At the media launch, the gurus from the OECD were asked point blank what the survey showed about teachers’ perceptions of behaviour in English schools. The answer did not lack clarity: “It’s pretty good actually – in line with high performing countries”. And the data bears that out; in England 11 per cent of class time is spent on maintaining order, compared with a median figure for the eight highest performing countries in PISA of 12 per cent. Now I am not one for complacency, but quite how that managed to transform itself into a headline in The Times that read ‘Teachers battle for control in Europe’s rowdiest classrooms’ I am really not quite sure.
Anyway, underneath the media histrionics, there are actually some quite interesting things in the TALIS data (and in particular the analysis of it undertaken by John Micklewright at the Institute of Education). The section on leadership looks at what headteachers spend their time on in England and benchmarks it against a group of high performing countries as defined by PISA outcomes. The most striking point from this for me is that England’s headteachers spend far more time observing lessons than the high performing countries (78 per cent and 43 per cent respectively report that observation is a frequent activity).
In my ASCL Annual Conference speech in March, I said that if we expect government to pull back from managerial interference in schools, and Ofsted from forensic classroom observation, we had to build trust and confidence ourselves as leaders and allow our teachers to develop as effective teachers without endless inspection, although holding to account for outcomes is something we must continue to do. It seems as if this data supports that suggestion. Perhaps, taking a cue from Ofsted, we ought to refocus lesson observation on professional development, and away from judgement, because of the unwanted consequences high-stakes judgements on teaching can trigger. That would then give teachers ‘permission’ to develop their teaching approaches with a focus on effectiveness alone, and leave us leaders free to judge that effectiveness, and therefore teachers’ pay progression, on the achievement they actually secure for their pupils, rather than on how they go about it.
TALIS also reveals that teachers in England work longer hours than almost anywhere else in the OECD – 46 hours per week on average. And yet teachers in England spend roughly the OECD average number of hours per week in the classroom. So what on earth, you might ask, are they doing for the rest of the time? Part of the answer may be that a very high 82 per cent of teachers in England provide ‘written feedback’ to students on their work, compared with a figure of only 47 per cent in the group of high performing countries. One might legitimately debate whether we have moved too far in the direction of believing that written feedback is the sole answer to improving the effectiveness of our teaching – an orthodoxy propagated, of course, by the Sutton Trust toolkit.
The question of differentiation of work for pupils offers a very striking figure. In England, 63 per cent of teachers say they frequently prepare differentiated work, whereas in the group of eight highest performing countries only 32 per cent say they do so (this might also account for some of the extra hours teachers here work, compared with other countries). And this figure is complemented by one on group work, where in England it is used regularly by 58 per cent of students, compared with only 40 per cent in high performing countries. This might well strengthen the arguments for a ‘mastery’ approach to the curriculum and assessment that goes like this: there is a body of knowledge we define for each stage or year, for all or almost all students, and while it will take some longer to master it than others, universal mastery needs to be the aim. And ‘direct instruction’ (not, actually, despite the caricatures, the same as ‘gradgrind’) might be seen to be more effective as a way of achieving that mastery than more progressive or child-centred ways which include group work. No doubt there will be much further debate on this point.
There is a whole section on professional development, and it merits a close read. One particular figure, which jumped out at me, was on what teachers think of the benefits of their CPD. Generally, not much, in England. Only half thought it improved their practice, a low figure by international standards. And compared with other countries, a relatively low proportion of CPD in England focused on subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. We can conjecture, based on this, that we might improve the impact of CPD if we liberated it from preparing for Ofsted (and Ofsted-inspired lesson observations by headteachers) and understanding the latest micro-detail of exam boards specifications, and concentrated on what seems to be undervalued, namely how to understand and teach my subject better. Music to the ears of the PTI, and a strong argument for pushing ahead with a profession-led College of Teaching, with an emphasis on subject-specific knowledge and teaching approaches to CPD.
Perception by teachers of how they are valued by society is an interesting one. Only 34 per cent in England answered that that the teaching profession is valued, which sounds a bit depressing, if not entirely surprising at first glance. But most OECD countries reported much lower figures – France is especially striking, where only 5 per cent of teachers felt they were valued.
There is much more in the data of interest, but let’s finish on a positive: 94 per cent of headteachers in England are, according to the data, satisfied with their jobs, in line with most other countries. And only 21 per cent in England felt they did not have the autonomy they needed to do a good job. Perhaps we really are in the best job in the world!
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