A vicious circle in schools

Submitted by Matthew on 10 November, 2016 - 11:22 Author: Gerry Bates

Between half-term of summer 2016 and Xmas 2016, over half the maths teachers in the London secondary school where I teach will have quit.

The maths department is more stable than most. Our science department, for example, went through almost a Year Zero in 2015, with almost a complete turnover of staff. And our school is probably more stable than most in low-income areas of London.

The Guardian has reported that the Harris Academies in and around London — “one of England’s largest and most successful academy chains” — had “465 teachers leaving in 2014-15, 422 in 2013-14 and 375 in 2012-13”, around 30% of its total each year. The latest figures show that 11% of teachers quit the sector each year — but more of the turnover is churn, with teachers moving from school to school in search of promotion to a managerial or semi-managerial job, or of more bearable working conditions.

Obviously a bad thing, no? Disruptive for students? Conversations with teachers from schools with high turnover rates tell me that the churn is an integral part of deliberate policy. Managers in those schools have to reckon that many teachers will last only a few terms. So, instead of giving new teachers leeway, helping them settle in, encouraging autonomous thinking about how to teach, they crack the whip on those new teachers to make them run their classes exactly according to an imposed template. To make that constant whirl of new teachers, all terrorised into a rigid template, even quarter-workable, the managers also crack the whip on the students.

One teacher from a school with high turnover told me that her school, with a bit over 1,000 students, had 33,000 detentions last year. The detentions apparently cow the students sufficiently to make classes fairly quiet even with new teachers, and to get the school rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Then teachers find a lot of their energy taken up with imposing or chasing detentions for such things as the wrong socks, or an out-of-place giggle, and soon they tire of that.

The high turnover and the ferocious regimes for teachers and students reinforce each other, in a vicious circle. And Ofsted often thinks this is splendid. Outstanding. There is enough rigid drilling to drive students through exams. No matter if the students are going to forget most of what they’ve crammed for those exams. The other engine of this vicious circle is the exam boards.

England is exceptional not just for the intensity of its official exam-obsession, but for its system of competing exam boards. The exam boards compete, above all, to make their exams predictable and cheap to mark. The result is bad exams.

Our exam board, for example, requires A level maths students to do a particular algorithm (for sorting large sets of data) wrong (in a way which contradicts the whole point of the algorithm), and will dock marks if they do it right. I protested to the exam board. I mobilised testimony from university professors of computer science that the exam board was wrong. The exam board did not dispute my mathematical arguments. It said only that it had always done the algorithm that way, so would continue. After a while I realised why.

Insisting the algorithm be done in the particular wrong way prescribed by the exam board makes the papers easier and cheaper to mark. In another dispute, I’m asking the exam board to allow a neat, mathematically-better algorithm for calculating certain geometrical transformations in A level Further Maths, as well as the laborious and mathematically-poor method they prescribe. I’ve been corresponding with them for nearly 18 months now.

No-one from the exam board has questioned my mathematical arguments. In fact, no-one from the exam board has expressed an opinion of her or his own. Its emails report decisions from anonymous “senior examiners”, given without justification beyond “status quo”, as if they were divine authority. It looks like the final outcome will be that the better method will be grudgingly allowed only in certain exam questions.

Exams which are mindless drill; school management designed above all to mould teachers and students to that drill; and high teacher turnover — all parts of the same vicious circle. And another part is the increasing rates of depression and anxiety among school students.