A poverty of aspiration

I’d like to use this post to suggest that there is a massive poverty of aspiration in our schools which urgently needs addressing. But my argument is not the one that has been made many times before. Rather, it is that of a poverty of aspiration among teachers, when considering their own professional achievement.

Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney) recently posted a blog as part of the fascinating #blogsync series on how she would raise the status of the profession, focussing particularly on the professionalism developed as part of the TeachFirst programme. This was followed by an excellent post from Mark Robinson (@DrMarkARobinson) which reflected on the need for teachers to use their skills to guide policy-making.

My contention is that too few teachers have the confidence to do so. And that much like our central government is right to urge schools to challenge low aspirations among pupils, so we must raise the aspiration of our professionals to engage in, and begin to lead, policy debate.

The parallels with students in schools are striking. There is much talk about cultural capital for students; knowledge and experience that will allow students of all backgrounds to compete with those from the most privileged backgrounds in fields of education and employment. I would argue that some similar capital is lacking for too many teachers.

When I look at educational discussion on Twitter, much of which is of excellent quality and real value to the broader profession, too much of what I see is centred around secondary teachers in urban areas – particularly those from high-prestige training schemes like TeachFirst, and particularly from London. It is, of course, inevitable, that the largest city in the country will lead the way by volume, but it is less clear why certain sectors might do so.

Laura McInerney’s point about TeachFirst professional development is undoubtedly significant: Russell Group applications have become something of a by-word for high achievement in some areas, and so there is a good deal of aspiration-raising work going on that makes clear to students of all ages and backgrounds that an application to a Russell Group university is an achievable goal; The TeachFirst programme appears similarly to expect of its students that they will tackle challenges broader than their own classroom, thereby raising their own aspirations and expectations of their achievement in wider fields.

The contrast with the average classroom teacher – particularly in primary schools, I suspect – is marked. For many teachers, their only experience of anything outside their own classroom is that of staff meetings and Inset training. Few opportunities for observing good practice, few opportunities for work with other departments, let alone other schools, and few opportunities for a strand of professional development which seems to offer so much to those on the high prestige courses.

Many teachers of all backgrounds have begun to take on their own professional development, using Twitter, TeachMeet and other sources, so well described by Dr Robinson. But still the number of teachers reached is relatively small, and still too, the breadth of professionals met is too narrow.

While I have much to complain about with the current review of the National Curriculum, and this government more generally, it does seem that the new curriculum may offer an opportunity to return to the profession some confidence in its own power and authority. Again, particularly at primary level, the prescriptive nature of things like the primary strategies and APP have for too long treated professionals as merely agents of delivery. Arguably, for the last 10 years, trainees have been trained for exactly this purpose of delivery. For that reason, grasping this new opportunity will not be easy for all.

I have already expressed my hope that a new form for the College of Teaching might help to raise levels of engagement and professionalism. It certainly strikes me that something is needed to inject a heavy boost of confidence into thousands of teachers nationwide to remind them that their expertise can carry weight at all sorts of levels.

Twitter is a good starting point, and hopefully the experiences of those trained by TeachFirst and those who attend Teachmeets will start to ripple out. But right now, we need something more widespread to really kickstart a professional confidence boost. We just need to work out exactly what will achieve that!

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5 thoughts on “A poverty of aspiration

  1. hillsofnottingham 28 May 2013 at 7:19 pm Reply

    I think your point about opportunities to compare and contrast teaching (particularly in primary) is one of the most important you make. With class contact time making up all but 2 hours per week, primary class teachers can often struggle to see professionals in their own schools, let alone outside. Even when families of schools pool together expertise we are often from the same demographics and tend towards clannish us and them approaches. I would welcome and relish the opportunity to develop through a variety of means. Coming to teaching as a second career it was something of a shock after my experience of the investment in training provided in my earlier (private sector) job.

  2. LisaH (@lizzie_h18) 28 May 2013 at 7:26 pm Reply

    Perhaps you would be surprised by some primary schools then. From my [admittedly quite limited] Twitter experience it seems that primary colleagues tend to offer support to others rather than promote themselves . Perhaps we have a quiet confidence?!

    • Michael Tidd 28 May 2013 at 9:12 pm Reply

      Sorry, am I misreading this comment, or is that a suggestion that I am merely commenting for the purposes of self-promotion?
      My point was never anything about the kindness or helpfulness of primary teachers.

  3. LisaH (@lizzie_h18) 28 May 2013 at 9:29 pm Reply

    No, no – it is not a comment about you. [I enjoy reading your posts and they are nothing but helpful and thought provoking]
    Quite the opposite – I’m trying to say that primary teachers tend not to shout out about the things they do or are good at unless it is in response to a question from someone else.
    I work in a really forward thinking school and we have the opportunity to work with people from a range of settings; across the country and abroad. I’m also supported to study at Masters level as part of the school’s committment to professional development. But I don’t blog and I don’t think many other primary teachers do either. [You may correct here]
    I didn’t see anything negative in what you said – I think I’m agreeing! I’m only suggesting that there is confidence which is not shared as widely as by secondary colleagues.
    I’ve rambled now! Hope this makes sense!

    • Michael Tidd 28 May 2013 at 9:36 pm Reply

      Ah I see. Indeed, there are many excellent teachers with a huge amount to offer. Sadly, too many don’t recognise that. I’d love to see many more primary teachers blogging!

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