Tuesday 10 November 2015

Why John Roan teachers are right to take strike action

Today, NUT members at John Roan School in Greenwich took a day's strike action against the imposition of unacceptable assessment, scrutiny and appraisal policies. 

If Governors were under the misapprehension that staff grievances were confined to just a minority of teachers, hopefully today's solid action will make them think again. With forty teachers assembling at the school gates, and other colleagues also on strike, the strength of feeling was clearly demonstrated. Let's hope that Governors are taking note.

The dispute at John Roan is a microcosm of the way that the 'accountability' agenda is damaging education in far too many schools. Like some other local schools, GCSE league table scores took a dip in the summer. But why?

Firstly, it should be no surprise if some schools are struggling to maintain achievement levels. Those that are, often only succeed through damaging 'exam factory' techniques, as explained in recent NUT research. Schools can only have a small effect on overall results. As research from the Sutton Trust quoted in NUT materials on child poverty explain, “These differentiated outcomes cannot be solely attributed to the education system: family income, job prospects, health, housing, social capital and social culture are all important. Analysis suggests that schools contribute only between 7% and 20% of the variability in pupil outcomes.”

Secondly, teachers can sometimes point to specific issues that have contributed to problems, issues which can then be specifically addressed. For example, contributory factors at John Roan appear to include the effect of the school entering Year 10s for early-entry maths GCSEs, a high turnover of teachers in a key department, and a decline in results following a change in exam board in another key subject area.

Unfortunately, rather than talk to staff and address these concrete issues, the school has adopted the top-down 'accountability' model of imposing more demands for data, observations and scrutiny. The NUT believe this will force staff to focus on the wrong issues and take away time and energy from teaching.

It's an approach which, bluntly, just puts the blame on teachers. It demands more pressure, more workload, more monitoring. It leads to demoralisation and stress, not school improvement. The 'conveyor belt' can only be sped up so fast before teachers fall down on the job. Sadly, thousands are, leading to a national crisis in teacher morale and retention - as this recent article by author Alan Gibbons describes.

Small wonder, therefore, that when an NUT group like that at John Roan (and others like the NUT members at Alfreton Grange in Derbyshire)  take strike action to oppose such a damaging approach, messages of support flood in to them from teachers around the country. I received an email from a newly-qualified teacher in Lewisham who was so inspired by the news of the action at John Roan that she was now joining the NUT!

However, and to reassure parents who have apparently raised this concern, the John Roan strike isn't  just some kind of 'proxy' for a national dispute. No, on top of the national issues, John Roan staff face specific threats from new Teaching, Learning and Assessment and Appraisal policies. Instead of seeking a negotiated solution, Governors have imposed these policies when they knew they were in breach of NUT policy on observations and workload limits.

The John Roan  policies aren't, however, just in breach of NUT policies. They're even in breach of Ofsted's own Inspection Handbook clarifications! For example, while Ofsted says "it does not expect schools to use the Ofsted evaluation schedule to grade teaching", the school's appraisal policy demands Ofsted grades. While Ofsted  says it "does not expect to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers" the school TLA policy says verbal feedback should be "recorded whenever possible, by use of a stamp or a more developed means".

These are just some of a number of detailed concerns that the NUT has raised with Governors and the Local Authority Regrettably, instead of listening and negotiating, the school has responded by saying that they are not prepared to change course but will evaluate the policies only "after the revised proposals have been in place for a year". That's no way to try and reach agreement!

Governors need to take note of the strength of staff feeling, withdraw these policies and open proper and full negotiations. If they won't do that, then what alternative do NUT members have but to take further strike action?

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