Your religion, your politics and school values

April 16, 2014 1 comment

Three weeks ago, before the story of alleged “Islamic extremism” in Birmingham schools broke, I arrived in the city to give a talk to teacher trainees. My cab driver started chatting and – as they do – asked what I was doing in Birmingham. When I told him I was an education lecturer and former headteacher, he launched into a fifteen-minute tirade.

His brother, he said, was a really good primary school teacher who had had excellent reports from Ofsted inspections but was now being driven out of the school where he worked by a new headteacher who was trying to impose conservative Islamic views in the school. “We are Muslims, my parents came from Pakistan” he said, “but we are Westernised and he has told my brother he wants him out of the school.”

He asked for my advice. I told him to tell his brother to do two things. First, speak to his union if he was a member of one and secondly, to speak privately to the Chair of Governors and tell him or her of his concerns. “That’s no good” he responded, “He’s already got rid of the old Chair of Governors and got in a new one who agrees with what he’s doing.”

I arrived at my destination and wished my cab driver and his brother well and thought nothing more of this story until this week. It is of course impossible to tell how much of this is true or even a balanced view of the governance of the school he was referring to, let alone the management style of the headteacher in question or indeed the performance of his brother as a teacher.

Even more difficult to assess are the similar allegations that have surfaced across twenty-five Birmingham schools. If there is indeed any truth to these, before we lose a sense of perspective about them through the prism of “Islamic fundamentalist” or “Al-Qaida sympathizer” scare stories, let’s just take a moment to compare them to some similar situations from other times and places.

I was a headteacher of a Church of England primary school in east London that defined itself by its Trust Deeds written in 1886 as “a school to serve all the community”. We had an extremely liberal admissions policy, guided by its Anglican vicar Chair of Governors, which prioritised residence proximity over Anglican affiliation. I was proud of that but I was well aware of many other neighboring C of E schools whose admission criteria were based primarily on regular parental Church attendance or communicant membership of the Church if they wanted to stand any chance of their children gaining entry to the coveted C of E secondary schools.

Until recent years, Catholic schools were a “closed-shop” for Catholics only – it was virtually impossible for a non-Catholic teacher to get appointed to a position in a Catholic school – a matter of naked discrimination that no-one seemed to question at the time.

When I was a young, left-wing, politically active teacher in Hackney in the 1980s I thought nothing of a headteacher at a neighboring primary school “going on strike” for a “Day of Action” in support of the campaign to release Nelson Mandela. She took all the school governors, staff and (a few) parents out with her too.

Indeed, if I had been a teacher at that school, I would have been happy to join her, but I was fighting battles of my own – trying to get the school governors to support the Miners Strike of all things. (Quite how I wanted the governors to do that, I’m not quite clear anymore, especially as the miners had Margaret Thatcher as their primary antagonist.) The school governors resisted my entreaties and told me to get on with my job of teaching primary school children.

More recently though, Lynne Dawes, the principal at the Oasis Academy Hadley in north London, has led a successful campaign to block the court-ordered deportation of Yashika Bageerathi, a Mauritian ‘A’-level student at the school – no doubt with the full support of the governing body.

Even now, school governors in ‘county’ maintained schools around the country have ‘political’ appointees from the mainstream political parties.

My point here is not:

that “extremist or conservative Islamic” headteachers have a right to promote their own religious or political agendas, I dot think they do – but it is a fact that the governance of schools has always had a ‘political’ aspect. Indeed, this is likely to increase exponentially as schools become more and more independent through the Academies and Free School movements, liberating them from the flawed but at least democratically accountable constraints of local authorities.

My question here is:

where do the professional values of teachers overlap with the values of school governance? Should we be appointing governors – or indeed teachers – on the basis of their religious belief or their political affiliation – whether extreme or mainstream?

A couple of years ago, Michael Gove went on record to say that teachers who held extremist views, and at the time he was referring to members of the British National Party, had no place working in schools. (He hasn’t done anything about that mind… perhaps he discovered something called the European charter on Human Rights?)

Well, let’s see what comes out of Birmingham…

What do you think?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

Is commitment a professional matter?


There has been a lot about pre-nuptial agreements in the press recently. You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to go in for one these days. Apparently they are becoming much more common, even for the ordinary plebs like you and me and some groups are campaigning for them to be legally enforceable. I think I know what my wife would have said to me if I had suggested a ‘pre-nup’ as the premise to marrying her…

But even with the best of intentions, commitment can be sorely tested.

My first year in teaching was a nightmare. I made so many horrendous mistakes that some days I thought I would die. Just read a few other blogs I have written in this series on the newteachersblog to see what I mean – losing kids on school outings, shouting at the whole class for the misbehaviour of a few, disproportionate and collective punishments, electric shock, water-boarding and summary execution for miscreants… (the last three were only my fantasies). But you probably get the idea.  My NQT year was so awful that by the end of it I said to myself that if I couldn’t get this teaching business right within three years, I would choose another career.

My second year was one of the most successful and thrilling of my thirty-odd years in education. My third year was even better than that. Though I continued to have some serious and volatile ups and downs – even well into my career – I learned that my commitment to teaching shouldn’t be contingent upon my annual performance but upon my tenacity, stamina and willingness to learn often from horrible mistakes.

As an NQT, don’t worry about too much about having an awful induction year – or any other year for that matter.  You will learn by your mistakes – at least if you are any good you will.  It’s an important part of what professional people do – reflect and evaluate – in order to improve.

I am great believer in the apprenticeship model for training to be a teacher. There are three fundamental principles inherent within that model that I think are crucial. First – that the model relies on the ‘apprentice’ watching and learning from the good practice of the ‘craftsman/woman’.  Second – you and everyone else, accepts that while you are learning you don’t yet assume the responsibilities of a fully qualified person. Third – you are allowed to make mistakes – lots of them -(as long as they are not truly catastrophic) during your apprenticeship period. As I just said – people learn by their mistakes.

I have just written a book about working in teaching. (Funnily enough it’s called “Working in Teaching” ;-). In it, I describe the various ways to train as a teacher and the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of each training model. I genuinely believe there is no one ‘best way’. It’s very much a matter of ‘horses for courses’.

However, I do have some misgivings about the features of those routes that throw people in at the deep end as if commitment to teaching is somehow tested by enormous stress, intense pressure and the ability to harness unrealistic amounts of enthusiasm, passion and moral courage every day.  The job is difficult, complex and demanding enough – even for experienced and qualified people – without having to start your career as if it were on an SAS assessment course.

In my view, all routes into teaching should support and prepare their recruits on the basis of the apprenticeship model I have described above – at least if they want to give them a good chance of succeeding and being retained for the long term.  Operating that model can be done well or badly whether you choose a university-based route like a BA QTS or PGCE or an employment-based route like School Direct or Teach First.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tough Young Teachers on BBC3 recently – and I take my hat off to all the trainees and the schools who exposed themselves to the unfair and uninformed scrutiny and mickey-taking by the huge national tv audience that it attracted. But of the many issues the programme raised, the premise of commitment of those embarking on this career was of particular interest to me.

In the last ten years, I have met quite a lot of people – probably around 30 anyway – who trained through Teach First. They were as you might expect, extremely intelligent, able people with good degrees from top universities. They were all very nice people too – hard-working, motivated and well-intentioned with good social values. Unfortunately after two years of undeniably total commitment to what they were doing in their schools, they all ended putting teaching second and left to pursue another career.

My experience may be far from typical I grant you that, and I don’t want to turn this blog into an attack on Teach First – because in many ways I think they are an admirable organization and have done some good things in raising the profile of teaching.  However, if Teach First recruit people on the premise that “this is a two year commitment” at the outset, then I wonder if we should be asking additional questions to the people who apply.

Teach First make a robust defence of their retention rates and even those who don’t stay after two years become ambassadors and advocates for Teach First. Let’s not forget either that retention rates can be a serious issue across the profession, so TF are not unique in dealing with issues around that. My point is, whatever route people choose to enter teaching – the premise should be to encourage them to commit to teaching as a career, not as a kind of VSO for inner city schools.

In my view, children have a right to expect that. People claiming to be professional teachers should demonstrate tenacity, stamina and endurance as part of their commitment.

Many people doing their NQT year this year will be seriously wondering whether they have chosen the right career. Like me in my first year they are probably having an horrendous time.  As I said, I had serious doubts that I had messed-up big time in my first year and gave myself three years to sort it out.

So is that any different to what is being asked of TF candidates?

Well in my view, yes, at least in one important respect – that is, the starting premise of my commitment.

Let’s imagine for a minute, you are not an NQT but that you are a headteacher of a thriving and successful school – as many of you will go on to be (believe me, you will!) – or a school governor or even a tutor on a teacher training course. Imagine you are interviewing candidates. If a one said to you: “I’m only prepared to commit to this for two years.” What would you think of that candidate?

I know what I would think. I would have no qualms about rejecting their application – whatever their alma mater, class of degree or professed passion for addressing the issues of educational inequality.

We expect people to make a commitment, even if their good intentions don’t work out. A career in teaching really is like a marriage in that respect (and bizarrely, retention rates in teaching are not that dissimilar to rates of divorce!) Sadly it’s a fact – lots of couples end up divorced.  But do we want the premise of any important commitment to be contingent upon a time limit with an option to discontinue? That’s not what we expect of people entering a marriage. In my view it’s not what we should expect of people entering teaching either.

What do you think? Is commitment a professional matter?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

Tough Young Teachers is better tv than The Apprentice, but appears to lack one essential feature…

February 11, 2014 5 comments

BBC3′s Tough Young Teachers has been fantastic entertainment for the last six weeks.

It has certainly shown some very frank exchanges, authentic incidents and realistic challenges that young trainee teachers face. I take my hat off to the trainees – all of them have showed enormous courage and tenacity. Good for them!

But I can’t help wondering if it has been an own goal for Teach First – the ‘charity’ that recruits so-called high-flyers from top universities to teach at tough schools.  Worse – I wonder if it has it damaged the prospects for teacher training recruitment, at least for this year, and even the image of teaching more widely?

I have just written a book about working in teaching. It covers all the various routes of qualification into what I regard as the most fundamental profession of all.

I have been careful not to recommend one route over another.  My experience tells me that training to be a teacher is definitely a matter of ‘horses for courses’ – and in my thirty-odd years in education I also spent six years training teachers, which included all the main routes as well pioneering the so-called ‘employment-based’ ones – so I have seen some people thrive on one course when it’s been clear they would have drowned doing another.

But watching Tough Young Teachers has made me think a lot about aspects of teaching that these brave but naïve young people have exposed to the world.

For example, in Week Three, the much-derided Nicholas (“I knew he was posh! I knew it!”) took one noticeably recalcitrant fourteen year-old urchin on what was really a personal outing one Saturday morning. Nicholas drove the lad in his own car – without any apparent risk assessment – to shoot pheasants with his Barbour-coated pals on a country estate (yes… if you haven’t seen the programme, I can assure you, you are reading all of this correctly.) Twitter was alive with hilarious derision – I know because I attempted to contribute to some of it – but the really interesting thing was how the outing clearly had an enormous positive impact on the youngster – though he still showed his ‘appreciation’ by calling Nicolas “a posh prat” behind his back – but then, that’s kids for you.

What Nicholas knew was that the boy will never forget that visceral feeling of a double-barrel gun going off in his hands and the massive kick-back he had into his shoulder from it. The boy’s eyes lit up. It was a real experience. One day that (currently) ungrateful little brat will come to acknowledge it as an important, perhaps even seminal moment – because he had a teacher who was prepared to risk his reputation to believe in him.

Similarly was the effort made by Charles in Week Four – another one who was clearly born with a silver spade in his mouth (this guy entertained his fellow trainees to dinner by employing a Master-Chef to serve a 12-course taster menu while Post-Impressionist paintings hung from the dining room walls). Nevertheless, Charles got another ‘ne’r-do-well’ fifteen-year-old – Walid – to go on a farm week – to get his hands thoroughly dirty, to milk cows and goats, to slop out pig sties and to sing soppy songs around a camp fire with his school friends. Experiences even Walid acknowledged he will never forget.

Then there’s Meryl – the lovely, totally naïve, almost hopelessly idealistic young woman who is trying to teach English (and sex education, for goodness sake..!) to kids who are systematically taking her apart – bit by tortuous bit – while her tutors and mentors seem to be observing her every hapless lesson. But she is so motivated and hard working it makes your eyes water. Twitter was rightly trending #ComeOnMeryl! every week.

As I said earlier, I take no ideological stand on the merits and de-merits of different ways of training to be a teacher – all have their pros and cons – and I am all for widening access to the teaching profession as long as standards of qualification are maintained.

But I do hold these principles dear:

First, that teaching is a profession. It is not merely a craft. It does not just rely on the application of practical skills – however inspired or imaginative they may be. You can’t just turn up – even with bags of enthusiasm, high ideals, regular use of the word ‘passionate’ – and hope to succeed, not in the long-term anyway.

Secondly, education theory is important. Not least because ultimately it underpins, guides and re-assures you that first, you know where you are and secondly, you know what you are doing once you have used up all those great ideas from your ‘bag of tricks’.

Thirdly, as the Tough Young Teachers have found out, teaching is not a game or a game-show. I don’t doubt Teach First’s genuinely good intentions – but was it wise to turn the serious business of training to be a teacher into a reality TV show?  The contrast with Channel 4′s Educating Essex / Yorkshire is stark. They seem to me, over the long term, to have made an important contribution to the public understanding of the nature and challenges of the teaching profession.

Training to be a teacher, again in my humble opinion, requires both the understanding and the application of theory; alongside the acquisition of a wide range of practical skills; under intense pressure; over a substantial period of time; but within a supportive and developmental environment. That’s the apprentice model. It’s a model tried and tested over centuries and passed down to us from the artisans of ancient guilds. Crucially, apprenticeship is a period both necessary and required before you can call yourself a qualified professional.

If you are thinking of training to be a teacher – and I hope you are – my advice is to choose a route that most closely approximates to that definition.

Good Luck!

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

Do you believe the Paul Smith maxim? You should…

February 1, 2014 1 comment

“Children only have one chance at education!”

How many times do you hear that bandied about by politicians, parents and sometimes even by teachers themselves? It can make us all feel like failures can’t it?

Don’t let it. It’s a bunch of crap.

It’s a horrible, insidious phrase that isn’t intended to inspire and motivate the best in teachers, but to bully them into fearing that any kind of failure – at all – is both inadequate and unacceptable. It’s like a publicity slogan intended only to induce anxiety.

Worst of all – it’s just not true.

I went to Goldsmiths’ College this week to give a lecture to some trainee teachers. It brought back some fond old memories. I did my PGCE there in 1978 and I remember, about a month into my first teaching practice, my tutor gave me some sympathetic advice at the end of a disastrous day: “Tomorrow is another day,” he said. “Come in and start fresh in the morning.”

I did.

As a newly qualified teacher  my first term – come to think of it, the whole of my first year – was punctuated with awful days that sent me home feeling utterly depressed. I thought I was a total failure and not cut out for the job.

Then one day a wonderful, treasured colleague – Olive Irwin – took me aside and said: “Don’t think you’re a failure just because you have a few bad days, we all have them. And don’t bear grudges because some kids show a pattern of bad behaviour. In teaching, you can turn over a new leaf every day. So can the kids. Keep telling them that. And don’t forget to tell it to yourself too.”

It was good advice and because I believed what she said, I eventually saw things improve. I still had some awful days when I just couldn’t seem to get anything done – but when that happened, I told myself to “go home, forget about it, get some rest and start again the next day.”

It was the same for the kids too – when some of them drove me to distraction with their endless petty-squabbling, fighting and apparent lack of ambition, focus or desire to learn – I’d try to say to them at the end of the day: “When you come in tomorrow, come in with a positive attitude. We start tomorrow with a clean slate.”

As my experience grew, I could put things into perspective – the ups and downs, the set-backs and pitfalls, the workload that seemed insurmountable, the pressures and problems that seemed unresolvable – I could see more of the big picture and where I fitted into it.

It was a picture that revealed to me that education was always going to be a mix of successes and failures – both for teachers and for the pupils. It has to be. That’s life! If education was only about success and achievement every minute of the day it wouldn’t make any sense.  Nor would it have any value.

Don’t believe people who say kids only have one chance. They don’t. They have lots of chances to make a success of education and of their lives – both throughout school and beyond.  Every day they come in to school they can make a new beginning.

And so can you!

This week I went to the Paul Smith show at the Design Museum in London. It was fascinating and inspiring – if you live in London, go and see it.  I love Paul Smith’s designs – his clothes, his ideas, his wit and his wonderfully ‘British’ creativity. He left school at fifteen with not a single educational qualification to his name. But he went on to art college and his teacher Pauline Denyer, inspired him to become a designer. He credits her for everything he has achieved – mind you, he did go on to marry her too!

But I was very struck by the maxim that he greets you with both as you enter and as you leave the exhibition. It says in large letters up on the walls:

“Every day is a new beginning.”

It’s true. Believe it.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? The right of children to seek adventure.

January 2, 2014 7 comments

There is a scene in the Rogers and Hammerstein movie classic The Sound of Music where the widower father of the Von Trapp family, Georg, is driving home with his friend and intended wife to be. They pass a group of children climbing in trees.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he re-assures his fiancé. “They’re just some local urchins.”

Of course, they turn out to be his own children. Horrified, he berates the teacher-governess who is responsible for their behaviour and threatens to dismiss her. But she fights back and says: “They need to play, to climb trees, to swim in the lake, to get dirty, to wear ‘play’ clothes, not the uniforms that you put them in.”

It is a classic scene of speaking truth to power for the rights of children – where a young, female teacher stands up to a middle-aged, military father. The young woman goes on to teach the children to sing, dance, play music – and ultimately re-connect with the love of their father.

It is interesting to note that the hero of the film Maria Kutschera, the postulate nun (played of course by Julie Andrews in the 1965 blockbuster and based very much on a true story) graduated from the Vienna State Teachers College for Progressive Education in 1923, aged only eighteen.

Some years ago, though not that long, a colleague and I took sixty children on an adventure holiday to the Lake District. We stayed at a youth hostel that had a huge garden with an enormous oak tree that stood as high as a five-storey building, the branches of which stretched out like a massive skirt all the way to the ground. We arrived after a long journey from London and once the hostel warden had introduced the kids to their dorms, we sent them off to unpack and told them they could explore and play in the garden until dinner time, an hour or so hence.

The shouts and squeals of glee and joy could be heard all around the hostel grounds as the children explored and played with each other in nothing-less than total care-free gay abandon. “This is what teaching is all about,” I remembered thinking and looked forward to a week of learning new things in an atmosphere of fun and adventure.

My colleague and I unpacked, sorted out a few straggling kids, chatted to the warden and then went down to see what the others were up to in the garden. We stood on the terrace and looked up.

At a conservative estimate, two-thirds of the sixty kids we had brought with us had found their way high into the branches of the oak tree. Those left on the grass were being encouraged and helped to get an initial foothold in to the lower branches; while the more confident were literally racing each other to be the first to get to the very top of the tree which without any exaggeration, stood more than sixty feet from the ground.

For a second I managed to admire the beauty of the scene – it actually resembled an enormous Christmas tree decorated with little fairies and angels spread across every branch. Right on cue, it now had an angel propped at the very pinnacle, only this one was dressed in a t-shirt and short pants and was waving down at me, shouting: “Sir! Look! I’m at the top of the tree!”

“Yes,” I said. “I can see…”

To say my heart leapt into my mouth would be to completely understate my physical reaction. Rather, I was like one of those characters in a Loony-Tunes cartoon where my eyes were popping in and out on storks and the ventricles of my heart were pounding like steam hammers on the outside of my chest.

Then in my mind a different scene quickly began to unfold – a gust of wind came from nowhere, the tree swayed violently back and forth, lyrical cries of children’s voices called out as they fell one by one from their perches, vainly grabbing at snapping branches as they hurtled towards the ground followed by a succession of dull thuds as lifeless bodies piled up on the grass in front of me.

Then before my eyes came yet another image – the one you see in every Hollywood ‘B’ movie where a tabloid newspaper comes spinning towards the front of the screen then halts upright with a headline blaring: “Hopelessly stupid and negligent teacher kills sixty sweet innocent young lives in massive oak tree pile-up horror!!!”

I shook the images from my mind and turned to my colleague, whose own child happened to be a pupil in my class and was up there in some of the highest branches with her classmates.

“OK Jean,” I said. “What do we do now…? Either we scream and bellow at them to come down – and perhaps frighten the life out of them – thereby increasing the risk of an accident… Or we tell them – as calmly as we can – to be very careful, to stay within the main tree branches and not to climb any further than they feel confident to.” (Which, it seems obvious now, is what they were doing anyway.)

So, that’s what we did.

Though the next twenty minutes were some of the longest of my life, in retrospect, I’m glad they were – because we saw literally dozens of those kids climb to the very top of the that beautiful giant oak tree. When they got there, many waved and shouted down things like: “I’m on top of the world!” or “I’m the king of the castle!”

And to them, they were.

When we sat down for dinner half an hour or so later, they were sharing their excitement and achievement with each other. One child turned to me and said: “Sir, from the top of the tree you could see over the top of all the buildings! You could see for miles! You could the whole world!”

For the rest of the week we had exciting adventures canoeing, sailing, rock climbing, abseiling and ‘ghyll scrambling’ – and for those of you who don’t know what ‘ghyll scrambling’ is – it’s climbing through the rocky gullies of steep mountain streams where children get drenched from head to foot in icy cold water and caked in thick mud. It is of course, fantastic fun and they loved every minute.

These days I rarely meet children at primary schools who have been on school journeys where they can engage in genuine adventure – such as climb trees, canoe, sail, rock climb or abseil. I meet an alarming number of young adults who can’t even ride a bike confidently.

It seems to me that some where along the line, we as the teaching profession lost the collective and professional will to challenge the stifling constraints of ‘health and safety’ and face-down the ‘nay-sayers whose obsession with ‘risk assessments’  vetoed almost every opportunity for children to experience real adventure.

Adventure activities are every child’s birthright. I also think they are every child’s educational entitlement. And I think, like Maria Kutschera, we should be speaking truth to power and aver the rights of children to experience adventure even where parents (and politicians) will misguidedly negate them.

Having said that, we may need to start with re-thinking the names of the institutions where we train teachers. How about ‘Colleges for Progressive Education’?

For advice on planning school trips:

The Outdoor Education Advisers’ Panel is the place to start: http://oeap.info/what-we-do/oeap-advice

The NUT also has a useful briefing document on planning school visits and a copy of the Manifesto for Learning Outside the Classroom at http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/5410

The DfE has: http://www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/advice/f00191759/departmental-advice-on-health-and-safety-for-schools

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

Categories: Professional dilemmas

Teachers’ crimes and misdemeanours – should you reveal your ‘dirty secrets’?

November 29, 2013 5 comments

Should people be allowed to train as teachers if they have even a minor conviction or caution?

My view has always been ‘Yes’ as long as they declare it.

But now I’m thinking of changing my tune, at least in part.

I’ve always said that it’s both the ethical and professional thing to do to declare even minor convictions and cautions. The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check should reveal serious offences in any case, though whether it reveals minor ones often depends on how efficient police forces around the country have been in their reporting methods.

For some years I have been giving advice to young prospective teachers and NQTs about professional ethics and issues around personal and professional boundaries. I always try to be non-judgmental, especially when they reveal delicate personal histories seeking advice or for the sake of the quality of a group discussion. My approach is to get people to reflect on their personal values and how they must integrate these with professional values expected of them when they enter a profession like teaching.

Lots of young people contact me through my blog or on twitter with concerns about whether they should declare minor convictions and cautions. Often they are worried about doing so. Usually, they have been ‘busted’ for relatively minor offences like possession of a Class C drug, shoplifting when they were a student or using threatening behaviour at a football match when they were in their teens. I have always tried to get them to see things in perspective and have offered re-assurance, saying things like: “Such offences are unlikely to blight your career prospects… better to declare now than your employer finding out later… head teachers and governing bodies are much more tolerant and forgiving than you might think…” etc etc.

But apparently I have been wrong.

Over recent months I have received a regular flow of feedback from people to tell me that they have had their applications rejected or been dropped from shortlists once they had come clean about their convictions and cautions, either on application forms or at interview stage.  I have been genuinely astonished that some of these people – clearly excellent candidates for teaching – have been turned away from jobs and from starting teacher training courses because they have been honest enough to declare a minor offence or misdemeanor, often committed years ago.

One young man who recently corresponded with me is a good example of many. He had a 2:1 in mathematics and was in the midst of a successful career for a globally recognised firm in the City. He decided he wanted to a more satisfaying career and chose to teach but was finding it impossible to get any teacher-training provider to consider his application because some years ago, he had accepted a caution for consensual ‘sex with an adult in a public place’. (The company he worked for by the way, knew of the offence and considered it neither serious enough nor relevant to alter their view of his position).

As a headteacher, I employed a number of people over the years with ‘spent’ minor convictions. Invariably they turned out to be excellent teachers. I thought that my attitude – which can be summed up as ‘as long as the offence is not serious enough to question the safety of children or catastrophically damage reputation then ‘live and let live’.

But now it seems such attitudes are not as widespread as they once were. Most of the head teachers and chairs of governing bodies I have spoken to in recent months about this say they are unwilling to take the risk of appointing teachers with even minor convictions: saying things like: “There is a buyers market out there… we can pick and choose from good teachers who have no ‘record’, so why take a risk?… teachers have to be role models” etc etc.

They have a point of course, but I worry about the fairness of this. How many of these people now in positions of authority and responsibility and able to determine the career prospects of others have never done any of the things they now deem ‘inappropriate’, ‘unsuitable’ and ‘unprofessional’ in others?

My educated guess – and this is from direct, personal experience – is that it is almost none of them.

When people get in to their middle age, have children of their own or get into responsible positions of authority, they very often forget what they were like when they were young – and I don’t mean as ‘wayward teenagers’ or ‘irresponsible students’ – but as young teachers themselves.

I look back on the hundreds of colleagues I have been in teaching with over thirty years and I can confidently say that 99% of them – even the good, honest, decent, brilliant teachers among them – have been guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors as those listed above… and more!

The crucial difference was – they just didn’t get caught.

Many of the people I knew, indeed most, went on not only to be excellent and inspiring teachers but also head teachers, some now at highly successful and reputable schools, or senior advisors with local authorities and the DfE, others as inspectors with Ofsted.

How do I know they were guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors? Because I did such things with them.

Am I condoning criminal behaviour? No.

Do I think being guilty of such crimes and misdemeanors disqualifies people from being good teachers? No.

Should young people who have the skills, aptitude and motivation to give up successful careers to devote their lives to teaching be given a second chance? Yes.

I’m not saying we should be turning a blind eye to ‘breaking bad’ and cooking crystal meth. I’m talking about blighting the prospects of people who want to be teachers because they have been convicted or cautioned for a minor offence. If we are not prepared to allow these people to redeem themselves and have another chance when they do own up to such offences, then perhaps we should not expect them to be honest enough to declare them in the first place.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

Would you be a ‘whistle-blower’ or a ‘Secret Teacher’?

October 15, 2013 3 comments

The Guardian newspaper has been running a series of popular articles by a ‘Secret Teacher’ revealing ‘what it’s really like to be a teacher’ in 21st century Britain. The articles have at times revealed some frank and surprising revelations. I suppose it’s one version of an open society.

The Care Quality Commission – the body responsible for guarding patient safety in places like care homes for the elderly – in a similar vein, has announced that its new inspection regime will include the possibility of using hidden cameras to ensure care staff are not abusing patients. Big Brother Watch – a pressure group monitoring the scope and extent of official surveillance of private behaviour – has weighed in, saying that where there is no reasonable cause for concern this is likely to infringe a patient’s right to dignity and privacy.

Over the last couple of years, some nurses have found themselves in front of disciplinary panels of their professional bodies for taking hidden cameras and secretly filming what has been going on in hospitals and care homes where they believed patients were getting a poor deal or even suffering abuse. They claim that their motivation was to bring to public attention patient neglect and abuse. Nevertheless, they filmed their patients without their knowledge or consent.

Uncovering wrongdoing, misconduct and professional incompetence is usually considered heroic.  ‘Whistle-blowers’ are people who after all, are putting their own professional reputation, career and livelihood at risk.

Should we feel any different about that if someone in authority (such as an inspection body) takes up that role?

If Ofsted were to announce it was intending to put cameras in to schools as part of standard inspection procedures or in schools where they had specific concerns, what would your professional response be?  (Actually, I’m a bit worried about giving them ideas here…!)

You may be surprised to learn that someone else has got there first…  Some years ago, a headteacher colleague of mine described to me his novel method for dealing with seriously disruptive behaviour by persistent offenders. He had, where he felt necessary, installed video cameras in classrooms to record and show the evidence of a child’s serious disruption to their parents. He claimed it was extremely effective in dealing with serious and persistently disruptive behaviour.

A couple of years ago a teacher in collaboration with a television production company did something similar. She filmed – secretly – the extremely disruptive behaviour of the children she taught and presented the evidence on television as ‘a matter of public interest and concern’; claiming that such behaviour was not only damaging to other children’s education but also to the ability of teachers to teach effectively.  She also claimed that schools colluded in keeping disciplinary issues ‘quiet’ and failed to address them assertively because high numbers of exclusions would result in poor Ofsted ratings.

Serious and persistent school indiscipline is a legitimate matter for public concern, but should teachers have the right to film it?  Are they doing something that many would argue is fundamentally damaging the relationship of trust with their clients?  In the case of the teacher and the television programme – was she also potentially damaging the reputation of colleagues, the school and the teaching profession?

Is filming clients without consent unethical, unprofessional or both?

Is a filming client with consent a breach of dignity and privacy?

And in whose interest is it that such a thing be done – the client’s, the public’s or the teacher’s?

What do you think?

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in March 2014.

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