TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves Mediocrity

‘There’s no I in TEAM’.

‘Together Everybody Achieves More’

These are phrases that are thrown about to justify why we need good teams in schools. However these are phrases that initially came from building effective teams in the business environment. And as I suggested in my previous post, not everything is the same between schools and business.

The essential difference is that most teachers spend most of their time working with their students, assessing (by themselves) and planning, which is often done alone, although sometimes with others. Teachers spend very little of their working day with their colleagues, which is something I suspect is different from most other work environments.

In short, while there is no I in TEAM, there is an I in TEACHING.

But to develop the picture, I think that many school leaders make the mistake of trying to over-conform their teachers to a single model of what a good teacher looks like. They set too many ‘non-negotiables’ some of which are important and some of which aren’t, but the net result is that many teachers are denied from working to their strengths because they spend so much time trying to fit the picture set out by their leaders. It’s like the Pareto Principle in reverse – trying to work so hard on the 20% that will make them into the ideal teacher, but then losing the focus on the 80% which they are actually good at.

Schools are strong when teachers are individuals. Of course, there needs to be a bottom line. But when we’ve all agreed that we need to raise standards for our students in a safe and healthy way, do we really need to mark in pink, write a post for the class webpage or ask at least 3 open-ended questions in our plenaries (those of us who do plenaries)?

And it’s true that there are educational systems where teamwork is highly valued and effective. Take Shanghai, where the maths teachers teach 3 forty minute lessons a day and have time to plan with their colleagues every day, and meet with other schools on a regular basis. There teamwork is built into the timetable. The resources are already there in the system.

In our system teachers have far more contact time with students, so there is far less time to ‘be team’. That’s why we need independent, unique and sometimes quirky individuals to be teachers. And there’s a strength in that, so long as we remember not to dumb down our teachers to the mediocre by enforcing a range of meaningless non-negotiables.

But we’re all cheating, remember.

So it’s great to see that more primary schools are meeting their targets. I love the way the BBC headline is phrased: “Fewer primary schools fail to meet their target.” Hooray: we have less failure. It shows what a glass-half-empty culture we’re in at the moment in education. We could so easily have said – Hooray: more success!

So I could go on about this over-negativity I suppose. Or I could make the ironic link between this and what Michael Gove said yesterday. Today the DoE tells us that: “Heads, teachers and pupils deserve credit for meeting the challenge head on”. Yesterday Michael Gove wrote to schools criticising an admittedly small minority of teachers for having a detrimental effect on their schools through working to rule.

However what I want to draw attention to is that today’s headlines come at a time when I believe we have an over-supportive assessment system in this country. Some people have pointed the finger at how the system has been geared to judge the school and not the pupil. Others have expressed their fears that our system is being ‘gamed’ – teachers and school leaders are ‘playing the game’ to make their schools look good, without actually doing the job of raising standards through good teaching. A helpful way of looking at this may be David Weston’s hastily but well-drawn graph of the continuum between teaching and cheating. Or you just might say that actually we’re all cheating.

You see, the BBC say: “The results are based on the national tests children in all state schools take in their final year of primary school.” But they don’t say that these tests are entirely self-invigilated. Unfortunately the phrase ‘national test’ distracts us from the fact that schools can sit their students with as many support staff as they want, in whatever group size they want, and nobody but the staff in the school watch them do it.

Yes there are one or two ‘invigilators’ that Local Authorities send out to schools on random monitoring visits, but they are so few and far between that school can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be there on the crucial day.

And who benefits from these tests being, shall we say, over-supportive? Schools do. When we read from the DfE:

“Schools with a long history of underperformance, and who are not stepping up to the mark, face being taken over by an Academy sponsor…” 

we begin to get get a hint of the intense pressure that schools are under. Headteachers and Governors are replaced in this process. Poor SATs results can trigger an Ofsted inspection bringing more pressure onto teachers. Surely if we just give one or two suggestions to those border-line children just to tip them over onto the right side of the grade boundary it won’t matter? Will it?

The problem with this approach is that it sucks the independence out of children. No matter what their ability these children expect the same level of support as they go into secondary school. Then to achieve their own progress measures, the secondary schools are under the same pressure as primary schools to ‘tweak’ their GCSE results just that little bit. And all along our students are losing their independence. We are creating a generation of exam zombies – education consumers who expect education to be done to them, not to be active participants.

Ever wondered why they need so many plagiarism checkers at universities these days? It’s not just the ease of access to online material – it is also the fact that our students expect to be supported. They do not expect to think for themselves. It is not a ‘thinking skills curriculum’ that fixes this. It is a rigorous, well-invigilated exam system that demands students think for themselves.

So unfortunately, even though I’d like to be glass-half-full about today’s announcement, celebrating with the many primary schools that, like mine, are now above the floor targets, all I can think of is the increasing amount of learners who will need support to hit their inflated targets throughout the rest of their education. It weakens us as an education system and it weakens us as a society, even though it might look good in the short term.