John Harris’s ‘Inside the A* Factory’

A feature in the Guardian on the 15th March, by left-wing journalist John Harris, aroused a good deal of interest among teachers (still going if last Saturday’s letters page is anything to go by). But ‘Inside the A* Factory’ received little coverage elsewhere in the media and the underlying issues (teacher workload, teacher morale and the factory model of schooling) also continue to be ignored by the press and broadcasters. There is a national teacher strike this coming week and a lay reader would be hard-pressed to know it was happening let alone why it was happening.

The article was essentially a collection of stories of different teachers’ experiences of working in schools over the last 20 years or so. The age of the teachers reflected that but the majority of Harris’s sample seemed to be 30 or under and talking about the last five or six years.  The picture, as presented, was one of relentlessly intense pressure from school management (and in turn from Ofsted) that required teachers to work increasingly long hours, be subject to increasingly bureaucratic monitoring and accountability processes, and to be complicit in a narrowing of the curriculum to ‘test-teaching’ and the narrowing of the school to an exam factory, with kids becoming specks of data to be manipulated.

I thought it was an excellent article for non-teachers who need to know what it is like to work in one of the great public services now and one well worth reading by everyone. But it raised two questions for me that were only partly addressed in the piece itself. First, as Harris said:

Much of the way state education now works is traceable to the last government, and a succession of Labour education secretaries who left teachers punch-drunk. But Michael Gove, secretary of state for education since 2010, is in a different league, and is using the machinery bequeathed to him to drive through a real revolution and defeat and educational ‘establishment’ he calls ‘the blob’.

So what hope is there for the future if neither Conservative or Labour offer substantially different policies? My sense is that similar questions arose in the US after the election of Obama: following however-many years of George W. Bush and ‘No child left behind’,  President Obama gave them …. Arne Duncan, the increasing privatisation of public education, the ‘common core’ and experiments in inspection borrowed from Ofsted in England by way of contracts with dear old Tribal. I have become increasingly frustrated here over the last couple of months with the Twitterati who bleat on about Tristram Hunt (the Labour education spokesman and shadow secretary of state for education) not committing to reversing all of Mr Gove’s policies. Duh. How likely is that given his party started most of them off?!

Second, teacher retention – or teacher attrition, depending on the way you look at it – is a problem in many countries that have never heard of Gove, Ofsted, academies or Tribal. In Norway, for example, 85% of trainee teachers at one major university drop out before they finish their course. And many more do so in the first three years of work. So what is it about teaching in some developed countries that seems to lead so many young teachers drop out or change careers. The sad fact is that so many teachers leave before they achieve their peak effectiveness after around 8 years. As a society we seem to accept this fact nonchalantly as do our policy makers. But it is both incredibly wasteful in terms of resources and very short-sighted in terms of policy.

So, who will try to set a new direction for education policy where schools are not just exam factories and teachers are supported to develop to their full potential?

Image by Steve Caplin for The Guardian.