Above my desk at home there’s a simple slogan - ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher’.
And I do. Every day. I give thanks for the wonderful opportunities I’ve been given by a succession of great teachers - from Mr Gillanders to Mike Duncan, Mrs Christie to Cath Richmond.
Every day I also give thanks for the amazing work being done by the teachers who are starting the new school year this week.
I am fortunate as Education Secretary because we have the best generation of teachers ever in our classrooms - including the very best generation ever of young teachers - those who have entered our classrooms over the last few years.
Whenever I can, I give thanks for their work - not just privately, but on any public platform I’m given. Including this one.
This government is determined to do all it can to support the teaching profession.
Because there can never have been a more important time to be a teacher.
Teachers hold in their hands the success of our country and the wellbeing of its citizens; they are the key to helping every child in this country to realise their full potential.
Teachers are the most important fighters in the battle to make opportunity more equal.
Teachers are the critical guardians of the intellectual life of the nation.
Teachers give children the tools by which they can become authors of their own life story and builders of a better world.
It is teachers, not poets, who are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
And it is because the teaching profession is so crucial that our programme of education reform has been designed to empower teachers; to give them more freedom, more power and more prestige.
I know that - sometimes - the speed with which I want to improve our schools, and - occasionally - the style with which I have made my case, have led some to argue that I am - implicitly or explicitly - seeking to criticise teachers.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
I want to defend teachers - and teaching - from the critics and cynics.
Because there are attacks directed at teaching - and I want to fight them.
In too many ways and by too many people - the importance of teaching is being denied.
There are 4 principal attacks on the work teachers do, which I want to anatomise today:
The first attack holds that teaching is a depressing and demotivating activity - and that the profession is suffering reputational decline.
The second attack is a denial that teaching can make any real difference.
The third attack is the sidelining of the teacher from the activity of learning.
And the fourth attack comes from those who believe teachers can’t be trusted - that they need outsiders at every turn to monitor, police and approve their activities.
I want to deal with each of those attacks in turn.
The first attack on teaching comes - perhaps surprisingly, perhaps unsurprisingly - from the leadership of the 2 biggest classroom unions.
Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT, has described teaching as a profession ‘in crisis’ - in which morale is at ‘rock bottom’, or ‘an all-time low’.
She claims that teachers are ‘angry, frustrated and demoralised’; that three-quarters of teachers feel professionally disempowered, that recruitment into initial teacher training is plummeting, and she has cited what she has claimed is research showing that over half of respondents have considered leaving the teaching profession.
Why is morale so low? Well, according to Chris Keates’s closest colleague, it’s because this government’s education reforms are a breach of international humanitarian law.
According to Dr Patrick Roach, the Deputy General Secretary of the NASUWT, this government’s Education Act was ‘a crime against humanity.’
It was ‘a smash and grab raid that will tear apart our schools and our communities’.
Dr Roach is not, however, alone in suggesting that government reforms constitute cruel and unusual punishments inflicted on suffering innocents.
Martin Powell-Davies of the National Union of Teachers National Executive has claimed that our education reform plans will make teaching ‘a totally unbearable profession’.
It has come to something when the General-Secretary of the NUT ranks almost as a voice of moderation. But even though Christine Blower doesn’t indulge in the hyperbole of others she still presents teaching as a profession in the grip of some terrible malaise.
She has argued that ‘it is hardly surprising that some teachers are voting with their feet and leaving the profession. A combination of pension cuts, pay freezes, an ever-increasing workload and continual inspection and criticism from government at every turn will make retention of teachers increasingly difficult’. And she has argued that ‘those who remain’ face ‘plummeting morale’.
The picture these union leaders paint is of a profession which no one rational would wish to join - a profession which is unattractive, unrewarding and unfulfilling.
The truth, however, is very different.
Teaching - as a profession - has never been more attractive, more popular or more rewarding.
Take the figures cited by the NASUWT about teacher opinion - they come from a self-selecting sample of their members, unrepresentative of the profession as a whole.
And despite their survey’s annual claims, it’s clearly not the case that more than half of NASUWT’s members are actually leaving the profession every year - in fact, year after year, more people in England join the teaching profession than leave it.
Indeed, teaching has a far better retention rate than many other careers for highly-qualified people. Overall, teachers are only half as likely to leave their chosen profession as graduates in popular non-teaching roles (44% of graduates in non-teaching roles switched career within their first 3.5 years, compared to just 21% of teachers).
The numbers who would recommend the profession are up.
Ninety-eight per cent of school leaders surveyed by the National College for Teaching and Leadership this year say that overall ‘it’s a great job’; and 91% say they would ‘recommend their job to other staff’.
The numbers who think that the profession is rewarding are up.
The Teaching Agency’s annual survey of final year undergraduates at leading universities found that 86% thought that teaching is a rewarding career; 66% think teaching involves ‘demanding work that has real status and kudos’; 61% think teaching is a ‘great career option for the long term’. When asked to choose an adjective that best described a teaching career, the largest number of respondents said ‘rewarding’.
Last year’s survey found that 71% of undergraduates thought the image of teaching was improving, while 72% thought their friends and family would react positively to them becoming a teacher - up 6% since 2010.
The numbers of highly-qualified people entering teaching are up.
More than 7 out of 10 new teachers now have a first or upper-second class degree, the highest proportion ever recorded and an increase of 9 percentage points since 2010 to 2011. Teach First has moved up to third place in the rankings of the Times ‘Top 100 Employers 2013’, its highest ever position; first place in High Fliers research of 100 major graduate recruiters.
According to the OECD, teachers in England are comparatively well-paid - with annual salaries in England higher than the OECD average, and higher than those in progressive Scandinavian nations such as Finland, Norway or Sweden.
Teachers in England already progress up the pay scales twice as quickly as the OECD average, and our reforms to pay progression will mean that, from this year, the best teachers will have the opportunity to access greater rewards even earlier in their careers.
And school leaders are now free to reward their best teachers more than ever before - with more autonomy to attract, retain and reward those teachers who have the greatest impact on their pupils’ performance.
And research from March this year found that 69% of career changers thought that teaching was a career for them to consider, a rise of 5% in just 4 months; 71% of students felt that teaching was a career for them to consider, a rise of 10% in just 4 months.
I think that growing enthusiasm for teaching reflects the fact that opportunities for teachers are now greater than ever.
As national, local, and specialist leaders of education, leaders of academy chains and teaching schools …
There are opportunities to change lives as subject leaders, like Simon Mazumder at Altrincham Girls Grammar – Head of Maths, a specialist leader of education, who is currently doing brilliant work on primary maths in collaboration with Manchester University.
And there are opportunities to become educational pioneers by opening free schools, which can reshape how we teach and how students learn.
Educational innovation has a new generation of heroes and heroines in Peter Hyman and Oli de Botton at School 21, in the team behind the Greenwich Free School, or in the inspirational classroom practitioner Mark Lehain who has opened an academically ambitious new school in one of the most disadvantaged parts of Bedford.
There are also new opportunities to shape the whole educational debate.
In the past, the education debate has been dominated by education academics - which is why so much of the research and evidence on how children actually learn has been so poor.
Now, thankfully, teachers are taking control of their profession’s intellectual life, taking the lead in pioneering educational research and creating a living evidence base.
Later this week the brilliant Tom Bennett - teacher, blogger, behaviour guru and free thinker - is bringing together other teachers at the ResearchED 2013 conference to debate how to use the most rigorous evidence to improve teaching itself. Some of the most impressive names in the profession - such as Tom Sherrington, Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou will be speaking.
Their initiative follows on from the groundbreaking work we commissioned from Dr Ben Goldacre - the author of ‘Bad Science’ - to help us understand how better use of evidence could improve teaching practice. His paper on ‘Building Evidence Into Education’ generated a vast amount of enthusiastic debate and discussion among teachers when it was published in March this year, both on and offline.
And his paper sits alongside fascinating research carried out by teaching schools, exciting schemes like the National College for Teaching and Leadership’s Test and Learn programme, and the projects run by the Education Endowment Foundation, a new charity working to ensure that children from all backgrounds can make the most of their talents.
I am particularly encouraged by the work being done by teachers to shape new curricula, using the freedoms enjoyed by academies. Caroline Nash, the inspirational sponsor of Pimlico Academy, has set up a wonderful new organisation - the Curriculum Centre - to help teachers develop challenging and aspirational knowledge-rich programmes of study. In Ark’s academies new and more ambitious maths curricula have been developed by brilliant young teachers. And David Benson, the newly-appointed principal designate of the Kensington Aldridge Academy, is also developing aspirational new approaches to the curriculum for students from disadvantaged communities.
As well as leading the education debate, teachers are also our most valued public service workers. More and more teachers are being publicly recognised by this government for their inspirational leadership.
More classroom teachers than ever before are being honoured for their work - in the 2013 honours alone, Ann Hambly of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Ashbourne; Paul Hughes of Queensbury Upper School, Bedfordshire; Peter Latham, a former PE teacher from Otley, West Yorkshire; Maggie Morgan from St Paul’s Nursery and Primary School, Brighton and Hove; Linda Wainwright from Slade Green Infants School.
In fact, around 10% of all 2013 honours were awarded to people from the world of education.
So - far from the picture drawn in such unremittingly bleak colours by the teaching unions, the reality of teaching in England today is that there’s never been a better time to be a teacher.
In fact, I could not put it any better than Gerard Kelly, the outgoing editor of the bible of teaching, the Times Educational Supplement - who wrote in his valedictory editorial that:
Contrary to most reports, teaching in Britain has never been in better health…The quality of recruits is phenomenally high, the pay isn’t bad, the profession’s status is rising, schools have never been better equipped and teachers’ pensions remain generous compared with most. Students have never been more motivated and parents rarely so supportive. Most encouraging of all are the widespread acceptance that a ‘satisfactory’ education isn’t really good enough and the determination of schools and teachers to take ownership of their profession, sharing ideas and best practice in ways unknown only a few years ago…
The fact is that teaching, for all its bureaucratic indignities, petty frustrations and ceaseless initiatives, is a more respected profession and a more attractive graduate destination than it has been for many years. The stresses are endlessly cited, less so the equally stratospheric satisfaction levels. It really is the ‘noblest of professions’.
The second attack on teaching has also - perhaps surprisingly, perhaps unsurprisingly - come from within the teaching unions. But it’s very far from restricted to them.
The essence of this attack is a belief that teaching cannot actually make that much of a difference to the life chances of children.
The people who make this argument exist on both Left and Right.
From the Left - and from the perspective of a teaching union general secretary - Dr Mary Bousted makes the argument more eloquently than anyone. I say this in a spirit of genuinely respectful disagreement because I believe Dr Bousted is one of the most impressive people in the education debate.
Mary has argued that the socio-economic circumstances of children determine their fate far more than the level of academic expectations at school or the quality of teaching.
She maintains that the most important factor in educational success abroad is not great teaching, high expectations of students or the valuing of knowledge but ‘less wealth inequality’ and ‘far more balanced school intakes’.
In essence - for Mary - it is overwhelmingly the case that deprivation is destiny.
From the Right - and from the perspective of a distinguished academic - a parallel case is made by Professor Charles Murray. Again, I have enormous respect for Charles Murray and his work - but on this occasion, I disagree with him.
He and others like him have argued that, because children inherit different cognitive abilities, the quality of teaching cannot significantly alter that and therefore large numbers of children are not equipped to succeed academically.
In essence - for Charles - it is overwhelmingly the case that genetics are destiny.
But if a child’s background and genetic makeup were all that mattered, then we would expect the same sorts of pupils in the same sorts of schools to get the same sorts of results. Whereas even the most cursory glance at schools in England and America reveals huge variations in performance, even in those schools with the most similar pupil populations.
There are schools with relatively gifted - or wealthy - intakes which perform poorly, coasting along without generating real progress.
And there are - thankfully - many state schools where children from poor backgrounds, who may have been dismissed as unacademic, perform brilliantly.
Indeed there are some schools where the children - irrespective of background - all perform well.
Schools like the Ark academies in England – like ULT’s Paddington Academy and Thomas Jones Primary in West London.
In all of these schools children from the poorest, most deprived backgrounds achieve just the same (impressively high) marks as their richer, luckier peers.
And in other schools children who have been labelled as likely to perform at below the average academic level defy that categorisation.
In schools like Cuckoo Hall Primary or Durand Academy far more children than the national average are registered as having special educational needs. But the vast majority of children - regardless of the challenges they face - achieved at or above the expected level in numeracy and literacy.
Why do these schools succeed, transforming poor children’s lives and life chances, for good? Why do their children manage to achieve far over the odds, giving the lie to those pessimists and fatalists from Left and Right and defeating both the poverty of their backgrounds and their so-called innate ‘genetic limitations’?
Because they share a single common denominator - a single-minded focus on teaching. On recruiting the best candidates, giving them the best training and development; maximising the time children spend being instructed by passionate experts in the disciplines of rigorous thought.
An overwhelming body of academic literature shows that teacher quality and pupil performance are inextricably linked.
McKinsey’s report, ‘How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top’, showed that quality of teaching is the most important driver of quality in any education system - more important than any other factor.
Studies in Tennessee have shown that an individual pupil taught for 3 consecutive years can make as much as 2 years more progress when taught by a top-performing teacher than by a poorly-performing teacher - teachers working in the same building, teaching pupils in the same grade, from the same backgrounds. Analysis in England has identified a quantifiable, measurable improvement in pupils’ exam grades when taught by a high-quality teacher.
Other studies have shown that the benefits of high-quality teaching last a lifetime - with pupils taught by top-performing teachers ‘more likely to attend college, earn higher salaries, live in better neighbourhoods, and save more for retirement’.
All over the world, in individual schools and wide-ranging academic literature, the evidence is crystal clear.
Great teaching can and does make a huge difference to children’s performance.
Great teaching involves empathy and energy, authority and resilience; detailed planning; constant self-improvement. A great teacher has the ability to ‘read’ a classroom and understand its dynamics, instantly; shows inspirational leadership, exciting and motivating pupils to help them achieve their full potential.
But common to all the great teachers I know is a love of children and a love of knowledge.
And that shouldn’t be surprising - because the very best academic research also proves the vital importance of an education which is knowledge rich.
This concept is, however, undermined by the third attack on teaching, an old one - as old as Rousseau, in fact. It’s the belief that education should not be an activity in which the teacher imparts knowledge to the child but a pursuit - by the child - of what it finds interesting.
In Émile, Rousseau wrote: ‘Let [a child] know nothing because you have told him, but because he has learnt it for himself. If ever you substitute authority for reason he will cease to reason, he will be a mere plaything of other people’s thoughts’.
Various so-called progressive thinkers subsequently took up the same position.
As David Green of Civitas has pointed out, these included influential writers like Ivan Illich, whose book ‘Deschooling Society’ (1971) complained that ‘real learning is not the result of instruction … most learning requires no teacher’; to Carl Rogers, author of ‘Freedom to Learn’ (1969), who claimed that teaching was “based upon a distrust of the student. The attitude of teachers was: ‘Don’t trust him to follow his own leads; guide him; tell him what to do; tell him what he should think; tell him what he should learn”.
These arguments have been particularly pernicious in crucial areas like the teaching of reading, for example - where research has consistently and comprehensively shown, both in this country and around the world, that systematic, phonic instruction by a teacher is the most effective and successful way of teaching children to read.
Ideologues, however, have long argued against phonics and direct instruction, claiming instead that children should be allowed to discover letters and words for themselves. This mindset - which holds that direct instruction (what you and I would call teaching) is harmful to children’s creativity and curiosity - is not new.
From the Hadow report of 1933, which stated that ‘the child should begin to learn the 3 Rs when he wants to do so’; to the Plowden report of 1967, which declared that the ‘skills of reading and writing…can best be taught when the need for them is evident to children’ and the Bullock report of 1975, stating that ‘we do not suggest that children of any age should be subjected to a rigorous and systematic training programme’…the educational establishment has conspired against teachers.
Again and again, in this country and abroad, educational thinkers who call themselves progressive, but who are anything but, have converged on the belief that the importance of teaching should be downgraded.
These theorists have consistently argued for ways of organising classrooms and classroom activity which reduce the teacher’s central role in education.
All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work - in practice, children chatting to each other - in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert.
Although, as the great Texan President Lyndon B Johnson said, ‘you aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.’
Some schools have been pressured to fit in with prevailing doctrines, even against their own instincts. Some nurseries and schools in Kent, for example, reported to us that they were told to remove tables and chairs from their classrooms; were told that they were not allowed to keep children sitting still for longer than 1 minute for every year of their lives - not even during registration, or when listening to a story; were told that children were not allowed to tidy up, or be asked to put their coats on, in case it interrupted ‘child-initiated play’.
And it’s not just group work - almost any activity which is not direct instruction has been lauded by the so-called progressives while direct instruction has been held up to criticism and ridicule.
In her fantastic book ‘Seven Myths About Education’, Daisy Christodoulou recalls her own teacher training - when she was told that she talked too much in lesson practice - and in a bizarre inversion of LBJ’s wisdom she was told that when she was talking, the pupils weren’t learning.
So what happens in classrooms when teaching is marginalised?
The teacher Matthew Hunter records on his blog a series of lessons aimed at history students between the ages of 11 to 16 that he had encountered.
They included studying the battle of Hastings by re-enacting it on a field with softballs, spending 3 lessons making castles out of cardboard boxes, making plasticine models to represent Hitler’s main aims as Fuhrer and recreating life on a slave ship by making pupils gather under their desks.
Another teacher records a lesson for A level English students in which they were asked to depict literary characters on a paper plate - drawing a face on the plate - and then asked to use stickers to define the character’s principal traits - pinning the stickers on their clothes and mingling with other students, while they introduce themselves ‘in character’.
Allied to these teaching methods which have nothing to do with passing on knowledge, there has also been an emphasis on teachers having to put their own learning aside so that work is ‘relevant’ to the students. This has resulted in the dumbing of educational material down to the level of the child - with GCSE English papers that ask students about Tinie Tempah, or Simon Cowell - rather than encouraging the child to thirst after the knowledge of the teacher.
I believe that we need to move away from these approaches to education - I would call them pedagogies but they don’t leave much place for the pedagogue - towards an education system which believes, right from the early years, in the importance of teaching.
Because schools are - above all - academic institutions. We need teachers to actively pass on knowledge, organised in academic disciplines such as physics and history - to introduce children to precisely those areas of human thought and achievement which they are most unlikely to discover or understand on their own.
Children naturally learn to talk; they do not naturally learn to read, or to play the violin, or to carry out long division.
The most impressive scientific evidence on how children learn - from experts like Paul Kirschner, Richard E Clark and John Sweller - all points towards the importance of direct instruction. Their work on ‘why minimally guided teaching techniques do not work’ is hugely powerful.
Their thinking is reinforced by contemporary advocacy from the very best teachers at the sharp end - like Daisy Christodoulou. In ‘Seven Myths about Education’, again, she points out that learning depends on teachers passing on key ‘building blocks’ of knowledge to students so that they become lodged firmly in the memory. Using an instant recall of times tables, for example, to tackle long multiplication.
Although the work may initially be hard, it brings its own special rewards. Only after building fluency in scales can musicians play a great sonata or concerto; only after learning how letters on the page correspond to sounds and words can children discover the magic and mystery of English literature.
Daniel Willingham’s research in cognitive science has provided compelling evidence that a traditional knowledge-rich curriculum is the key to educational success.
As he has written, ‘knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills: it actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more - the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes - the very ones that teachers target - operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate, the smarter they become.’
Willingham’s comment that ‘the rich get richer’ is, sadly, not just a metaphor. All too often, children from more affluent backgrounds effortlessly acquire this broad knowledge base at home, equipping them with the tools needed at school and beyond; those from less privileged backgrounds miss out.
The educationalist E D Hirsch has proved this phenomenon beyond any doubt - with research demonstrating that students with a higher level of ‘background’ knowledge were able to understand and analyse complex texts much better than their peers without that knowledge, who tended to come from poorer, less privileged backgrounds. As he wrote:
African-American students at a … community college could read just as well as university…students when the topic was roommates or car traffic, but they could not read passages about Lee’s surrender to Grant [a pivotal battle in the American Civil War]. They had not been taught the various things they needed to know in order to understand ordinary texts addressed to a general audience.
This, then, is the perverse result of so-called ‘progressive’ denigration of knowledge. Gramsci put it best: ‘the most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of [education] is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences, but crystallize them in Chinese complexity.’
In short, for too long - whether driven by a romantic, Rousseau-ian reluctance to crush a child’s delicate spirit, or a glib, Google-era insistence that knowledge is irrelevant in a world where ‘you can just look it up’ - the role of the teacher has been eroded.
Which is why it is so encouraging that a growing number of teachers - indeed the most popular teachers on the web, like Andrew Old, whose blog has received more than 600,000 hits; Tom Bennett, with almost eight and a half thousand followers on Twitter, and Joe Kirby, with almost 2,000 - are arguing for a restoration of knowledge and direct instruction; in short, standing up for the importance of teaching.
The fourth attack on teaching is one in which governments - including Conservative governments - have at times been complicit.
It’s the belief that teachers need others to validate the work they do - whether those others are university academics, or inspectors, or examiners - who have never been teachers.
Take, for example, the whole practice of teacher training.
The evidence shows the best teacher training is led by teachers; that the skills which define great teaching - managing behaviour, constructing compelling narratives, asking the right questions, setting appropriate tasks - are best learnt from great teachers; that the classroom is the best place for teachers to learn as well as to teach.
The work of Doug Lemov in the United States - teacher, founder of a charter school, author of ‘Teach Like a Champion’, which has transformed the debate around teacher training and won followers all over the world - has found support right across the American political spectrum.
In this country, schools play a central role in all of the ITT providers judged to be outstanding under Ofsted’s tough new regime.
We have already taken a number of steps to put teachers and schools in charge of recruitment and training.
Brand new teaching schools have become centres of excellence in training and development - and we will be expanding the number of teaching school alliances beyond the planned 500. The first group of teaching schools have now been operating for 3 years and I can now confirm that their funding will continue beyond the planned 4 years into a fifth year.
While our new teacher training scheme, School Direct, gives aspiring teachers the opportunity to work in a great school from day one, just like student medics in hospitals - learning from more experienced colleagues and immediately putting their new skills into practice.
We’ve also done a lot to deal with the systematic shortages of specialist maths and physics teachers that we inherited. We’ve collaborated with the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Mathematics to introduce prestigious new scholarships worth £20,000 and brought in new training bursaries of up to £20,000 to attract the brightest graduates into these core subjects, more if trainees go to schools with a high proportion of pupils on FSM.
But we’ve got to go even further. So we will soon be announcing even greater incentives in shortage subjects, where recruitment has historically been most difficult, and we will do even more to encourage would-be teachers to study maths and physics at A level and beyond. And we’ve ensured that - at least in maths and physics - there will no longer be any cap on the number of teachers recruited each year, no published target for ITT places; on the contrary, we want to recruit as many new teachers in these subjects as we can.
Schools can now also use their new powers to attract and reward great teachers in specialist subjects, in particular - giving them the power to pay great physics and maths teachers more, right from day one.
As schools take more control over training the next generation of teachers, many of the best academy chains and teaching school alliances are now playing an even greater role in training the next generation of teachers as accredited SCITTs, school-centred initial teacher training providers.
We want to see their numbers increase, enabling more aspiring teachers than ever before to benefit from the expertise and experience of some of the best in the business - so we will be bringing forward proposals to support this later in the year.
The best higher education institutions welcome our changes because they know that discriminating schools will increasingly choose partners in HE who deliver the best quality training and development.
Many have in fact been working hand in glove with schools for many years, and School Direct is just an extension of what they already do. Oxford University, for example, has collaborated with local secondary schools on an internship programme called Oxford City Learning for many years now, and School Direct places have simply been incorporated within that successful scheme.
But sadly, there are some vested interests within some universities that oppose the shift towards school-centred teacher training by SCITTs or through School Direct; those, perhaps, which have long relied on an effective monopoly of teacher training to sustain their finances.
So it’s vital for the future of the profession that we defend teachers from self-interested attacks - and stand up for the principle of teachers teaching teachers.
We also need to defend teaching from the wrong sort of inspection.
I am a passionate believer in the power of good inspection to improve education.
And to those who question whether schools need to be inspected by any outside body at all - suggesting, perhaps, that schools should be the only state-funded institutions not accountable to any form of external authority - I merely point out that without Ofsted, exam results would be the only arbiter of a school’s performance - making a system more pressurised, more crude and more ‘high stakes’ than the one we have now.
Inspection can be a catalyst for rapid and effective school improvement.
We know that schools judged inadequate by Ofsted have generally made more rapid and sustained improvement than those marked ‘satisfactory’, the next rung up - which have tended to coast along at the same level.
This, incidentally, is part of the reason why Sir Michael Wilshaw has, quite rightly, changed the old grade of ‘satisfactory’ into ‘requires improvement’ - sending the message that every school should, at least, reach ‘good’, and should be aiming even higher.
Ofsted also provides an essential service in highlighting brilliant practice, the schools which make a difference and the teachers we should celebrate.
And it has now changed the way it reports its findings so that every inspection report for an outstanding school clearly states on the very first page why that school is outstanding - making it much easier to understand why the best schools are doing so well.
But there have been occasions - in the past - when inspection has not achieved what it should.
Too few inspectors had recent - or current - experience of teaching.
The framework, prior to 2010, required schools to be judged against more than 27 different criteria - putting ‘quality of teaching’ on a par with ‘whether pupils adopted healthy lifestyles’ and ‘the extent to which pupils contribute to the school and wider community’.
And Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.
As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.
The good news is that Ofsted - under its inspirational new leadership - is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud.
The numbers of inspectors with the right experience and credentials is rising. In 2010 to 2011, just 15% of inspections included a serving headteacher or senior leader - today, it’s 52% - and 88 national leaders of education have already trained as inspectors, with 45 more training this term and applications already oversubscribed for the next round.
Outdated, misleading guidance has been replaced with a clear directive to reward great teaching - whether it matches the inspector’s personal preferences or not.
And the Ofsted framework has been transformed so that, rather than peripherals, teaching now matters above all - in particular, the sort of teaching which generates excellence. That means less focus on processes, pedagogies, lesson plans and structures, and more focus on how well pupils learn. And a school cannot now be awarded an overall ‘outstanding’ grade unless its teaching is judged to be ‘outstanding’.
It is thanks to Sir Michael Wilshaw - himself a great teacher - that these changes have been made - and they all point in one direction - the affirmation of the importance of teaching.
That phrase - the ‘Importance of teaching’ - was the title of this government’s first and only education white paper; our most important priority then, and our most important priority now.
It is the silver thread running through every single one of our policies, every part of our reform agenda.
It’s because we know teaching can make such a difference that we have instituted policies that help teachers make that difference.
Clearing away the distractions and slashing the unnecessary bureaucracy and central prescription which sapped so much of teachers’ time and energy; in numbers alone, we’ve removed or simplified over 50 unnecessary duties and regulations; and cut the volume of guidance issued to schools by 75%, over 21,000 pages.
And giving teachers as much freedom, autonomy and independence as possible, to get on with they do best - teach.
Every teacher in the classroom knows - as Gerard Kelly so rightly said - that teaching is the noblest of professions.
Which is why everything the Department for Education does, has done and will do is designed to reinforce the importance of teaching.