Are we losing our understanding of the need for personal responsibility in society?

I read the following short article recently.

I found it really interesting because, in my view, there is much for both the teaching profession as well as for parents and society in general to reflect on within the piece.

To briefly summarise the article’s content, a secondary school has decided to significantly alter its homework policy, basing its premise on reducing the marking workload for teachers. As a result, some parents have reacted negatively, including one who has set up a Facebook page for others to log their concerns after being worried that the school is possibly creating, “a generation of children who flunk their GCSEs.”

Homework is one of those issues that continue to divide opinion amongst teachers and parents alike. My own view is that the appropriateness of the homework is the key determiner in establishing whether it’s been purposeful or not. Giving out homework every “whatever day” can lead to task driven, laborious and uninspiring, low level work which neither the teacher nor pupil values. In an age when children may not have access to as much adult support at home as was the case for past generations, homework can be an enduring trial for both pupil and an often working parent. As such, the homework needs to be carefully planned and targeted. Everyone involved needs to feel the benefit of the task: the teacher should see improved practice from the pupil; the pupil should grow in confidence and ability; the parent should feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to their child’s learning. I suggest that this should involve a lessening of the amount or frequency and an increasing of the quality. But this is not what the article was about. Instead, it was about workload from one perspective and expectation from another.

I fear that there’s a danger that we are letting outside pressures inhibit our sense of personal responsibility. For those of us in the teaching profession, this may involve leaders and class based practitioners focusing on the wrong type of accountability measures and trying to second guess what is expected of us so as to avoid “failure”, which in turn means they are spending large amounts of time doing the wrong things.  Meanwhile, for often busy parents, this may involve abdicating responsibility for the entirety of their child’s education to the school.

I genuinely appreciate that there is an increased awareness within some schools of the need for reducing pressure on teachers, but has anyone actually considered what matters most to the children they teach? Why is the focus so much on reducing marking rather than reducing other responsibilities for the teacher? For example, within primary education it has almost become expected that teachers run an after school club voluntarily. These need preparing for, are time consuming, often energy sapping. Yes, they’re worthwhile – but more worthwhile than marking children’s work? How about looking at planning? It amazes me that there are still some schools that expect their teachers to hand in planning to be looked at by senior leaders when work scans indicate that the planning is appropriate. At the school where I’m head teacher, it has become increasingly clear that the latest generation of teachers coming through are utilising a lot more digital material when planning which can be viewed and stored on the network. Consequently, the time has come to remove the burden of duplication on old planning formats.

In relation to marking, there is an agreed minimum number of books to be scrutinised each day. But our teachers recognise the value that children place on knowing that their work has been looked at regularly.

Teachers shouldn’t need reminding that our job is a vocation first and a career second. Therefore, children come first. The best teachers, of whom there are a far greater number than our print media and politicians would have you believe, are totally committed to the service of their pupils and never need to refer to the required minimum standard of anything. These genuinely fantastic people are not concerned about accountability because they live up to their responsibility on a daily basis knowing that the results will take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, as a result of decades of political manoeuvring, some great disillusioned talent has left the profession and so we’re faced with a recruitment crisis (does anyone still believe that we’re not?). Subsequently, there are those who have been accepted into the profession who are not of the right character let alone ability – and suddenly, an agreement of what constitutes the bare minimum is being sought over all things. Poor teachers within a team can have as much effect on team morale as workload.

So – to the parent preparing to blame a school for any possible failing of GCSEs: Where is your personal responsibility as a parent? If you feel that your child may benefit from additional challenge or practice – what’s to stop you from providing it? Surely you’re not worried that your child will resist and not comply? Is it a teacher’s job alone to monitor, challenge and support the individual student? If you’ve got time to set up a Facebook page and engage in generating aggravation, then you’ve got time to support your child in their learning. The student is YOUR child.

I totally accept that a huge increase in the amount of accountability measures and the potential consequences arising from them only serves to replace acceptable pressure with unacceptable stress; that can be truly catastrophic. As such, it is up to those of us in positions of leadership to ensure that there is a balance between monitoring, challenging and supporting those within our learning communities and to expose those who are not providing the support. But let’s not resign ourselves to lowering the acceptance criteria for entry into the profession. That will not solve anything. Indeed, quite the reverse. It will only act as cannon fodder for certain parents and certain news media to blame our country’s schools even more, so as to hide their own lack of personal responsibility.

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