I’m not too enthusiastic about ‘teachers doing research’; I am more enthusiastic about the opportunities for schools to take part in larger, more formal research trials and partnerships with higher education. My position set out, I think that what school staff can do is question things.
The staggered start to the new academic year for schools has caused my timeline to be peppered with INSET tweets throughout the week. A few have caught my eye and one particularly seemed to connect with last night’s #UKEdResChat which asked “Are we in a research bubble? Is so how can we pop it?”. The tweet’s from a locked account so I won’t embed it but it read:
“Really pleased how positively staff took on board our drive to embed a #GrowthMindset across school! #ThePowerOfYet”
This tweet was from a primary school colleague in our TSA Innovation Hub – a follow on from the Evidence Based Teaching Group we had, and shows engagement and dissemination of research we have touched on within the group and whilst it’s not bursting the bubble it is perhaps stretching it a bit.
It strikes me though that if research informed staff, including research leads, are striving to build research literacy in schools, is the ultimate goal not to have everyone on board, but to have them questioning? I appreciate that this single tweet doesn’t have a lot of information in it and there may have been a discussion around the approach – it’s just 140 characters. However, if we are to break out of the cycle of the same people driving the research-informed agenda in the same schools I think we need to be looking to encourage the critical eye rather than introducing top-down initiatives. It’s almost a cliché.
Taking the example of Growth Mindset, I know from my own reading that there has been a lot of debate around implementation in the classroom and my basic understanding is that it’s questionable as to whether there’s an impact and to be implemented properly staff need formal training. I don’t know how this school is approaching it (hopefully it’ll crop up at our next Innovation Hub meeting) and I feel uncomfortable using them as an example when I don’t know any detail about their method so putting that to one side, I think introducing something like this is an opportunity for the type of enquiry that should be encouraged in schools.
Questioning things isn’t the same as resisting change but about exploring initiatives and measuring the impact. Introducing school-wide initiatives should involve reading around the subject both for those driving the programme and those who are taking it on. When new ideas are put to staff it should be a positive thing to be met with questions and leaders should be able to answer those questions – either having read around the topic and predicted them, or by offering the opportunity for staff to answer the questions within an implementation and review process. We don’t need to be doing big research projects but at least exploring evidence for and against and looking for change if you do do it. And leaders shouldn’t be afraid to say that something hasn’t worked.
We need the rhetoric to move from ‘we’re going to do this’ to ‘we’re going to find out if this can work for us’. Doing with, not to. This isn’t something that should threaten leaders but that they should embrace. It can be difficult to accept if you have spent a lot of time in preparation but when changes are met with constructive questions that are taken on board and incorporated into the way we work, I think it will be an indication that the research bubble is at least expanding and we are truly embedding research in everyday practice.
#UKEdResChat asked what aspect of teaching, learning, school systems or government policy etc, what would we commission research in should we have the opportunity. It took me a while to think of anything at first as it’s quite an overwhelming brief but I jumped in with the suggestion that I would like to see some proper investigation into unqualified teachers.
Replies to my choice varied from “I don’t get the fuss” to “it undermines the professional aspect of teaching” – which mirrors wider twitter discussions I’ve seen over the past few years, but what I haven’t seen is anything beyond perhaps stats of how many people are being paid as unqualified teachers. Last night’s brief discussion offered solutions to the problem and mooted reasons for individuals choosing to qualify or not but the general vibe was that (even if the idea of unqualified teachers didn’t offend) qualifying was best. I found points on professionalism interesting as I wondered whether that was more important to people who have completed training than a reason to qualify – does it de-value the qualification in the eyes of some? The point of my original question though was to work this out. Where is the evidence that qualified status is best?
A quick search on Schools Week (a good font of knowledge) throws up a couple of recent stories that offer some figures and concerns. In July this year they had a piece on a Labour Party report that
The number of teachers in state-funded English schools without QTS rose to 24,000 in 2016, a figure that has grown by 62 per cent since the rules around unqualified teachers were relaxed in 2012.
I won’t regurgitate all the stats but they’re in there so have a look. The points made echo other comments I’ve seen though which is pretty much – standards will decline vs schools can hire on the basis of ‘skills and experience’. Another story from July reports on a school rehiring (not quite all) its teaching assistants as ‘Teaching Fellows’ to work towards a teaching qualification and the points raised by this story surround the exploitation of the sort of teacher-on-the-cheap argument to stretch budgets further. It’s only a little look but I think the two main worries about unqualified teachers – ‘standards’ and ‘exploitation’ are pretty much covered by these. Thing is though, there’s a lot of opinion on how it ‘might’ affect pupils or the ‘potential to…’. Do we not need to look at whether it is or not?
My personal opinion is mixed. On the surface it seems reasonable to want all teachers to be trained, but my experience tells me there are some awesome unqualified teachers that get great results – both in terms of qualifications and on a more general level with pupils. Off the top of my head, reasons for me working with unqualified teachers include: staff cover where TAs have taken a class for an extended period and been able to have an uplift in pay to do it; vocational teacher with years of college and industry experience; art teacher with 20+ years experience as SEND TA, a fine art degree and work as an artist. Reasons for them not wanting to qualify include it being a temporary role; nearing retirement and not thinking the extra work’s worth it; not wanting a whole-school responsibility for the subject. There’ll be other reasons but you’d have to ask them. What I do know is that they were/are all brilliant at their jobs and it works for our setting really well. Different situations will appear in other schools where it does and doesn’t work as well but even though gut-instinct is useful, I think there’s an opportunity to explore it more formally.
So what do I think needs to be looked at? I don’t have an idea for a specific research question yet – more ideas of the data that needs to be gathered in order to prompt research questions. As a starting point, things I think we need to know include:
Where are they teaching and how many?
- In independent schools, state schools, and separate figures special schools/alternative provision settings. This needs to be gathered for each key stage.
- Data on the social demographics of schools and OfSTED grades.
What are they teaching?
- Which subjects are unqualified teachers working in?
- External test/exam data
- Primary – likely to be teaching a range of subjects; Secondary – more subject specific?
Who are they?
- What is their experience – as TAs/other school roles; college/higher education; teaching abroad.
- Qualifications – subject specific; ‘teaching’; training in specific programmes.
- Other responsibilities held in organisation.
Reasons for not qualifying
- Personal – happy in role; lack of entry qualifications; financial costs of training etc
- Institutional – school not willing to enable; not able to fund
Perceived gains of qualifying
- From both unqualified teachers and the wider teaching community. Issues such as pay and professionalism seem to be top of the list.
Some of the data for these points will already exist and may already have been collated, but other bits require going a bit deeper and finding out what’s happening at school level. I’m happy to offer my opinions whenever this comes up as a topic and there are some interesting ideas for how to qualify the unqualified, but we can’t do that well without looking at the current picture and working out what schools, pupils, and staff, need.